Struggling Panthers emerge from bye week hopeful, healthier

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The bye week has provided the struggling Carolina Panthers with a new sense of hope - and a few more healthy bodies on the field as well.

Coach Ron Rivera expressed confidence Monday the Panthers (1-5) can rebound from a sloppy, mistake-filled start to the season and make the playoffs despite the odds being stacked against them. Since the NFL went to a 12-game season in 1990, 90 of 91 teams that have started 1-5 failed to qualify for the postseason.

''Oh yeah, absolutely,'' Rivera said when asked if he still feels good about his team's chances of making the playoffs for a fourth straight season. ''Why not? We have 10 games to go and you never know. If we can take care of our business and do our job. ...''

Rivera said he was pleased with the energy level at practice as the players returned from a five-day break and began preparing for Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals - a rematch of last year's NFC championship game.

The two-time NFL Coach of the Year told his players before they left last week he wanted them to ''get away from football'' and come back with a renewed focus. Quarterback Cam Newton danced on the field before drills and players hammed it up in the locker room after practice.

''A lot of guys talking, joking around and talking (stuff) to each other,'' Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short said. ''That's what we need - keep each other fired up to bring out the best in each other.''

Even Rivera heeded some of his own advice, taking a break to attend a chili cook-off and a Carrie Underwood concert on Sunday.

''We have some work to do but if we approach it with that kind of attitude (we had today), I think things can start to go the direction we think we can,'' Rivera said.

The good news for the struggling Panthers is they seem to be getting healthier.

Starting cornerbacks James Bradberry and Robert McClain and defensive tackles Vernon Butler and Paul Soliai all returned to practice after missing a combined seven games. Bradberry said he feels good, but needs to work on his conditioning following a three-week hiatus.

Also, cornerback Leonard Johnson appears ready to return from the non-football injury list - more good news for a flailing secondary .

But starting left tackle Michael Oher remains in the concussion protocol and did not practice. Oher has missed the four weeks of practice and three games, causing the Panthers to move right tackle Mike Remmers to the left side and use young Daryl Williams at right tackle.

Oher was the only player who didn't practice due to an injury.

Rivera's staff spent the last week self-scouting, working on areas the team needs to improve upon.

Rivera wasn't giving away any competitive secrets, but McClain said one of the biggest points of emphasis Monday was on creating turnovers on defense and protecting the ball on offense. The Panthers led the league in the takeaway-giveaway category last year, but are a minus-8 this year.

''We are trying to get back to that way of attacking the ball, whether it is punching the ball out, stripping it or intercepting it,'' McClain said. ''Just being around the ball and being a factor on the field.''

The Panthers know better than to quit on a season.

Two years ago they started 3-8-1 and still won the NFC South after closing the season with four victories. They even won a playoff game.

Rivera said the losses by Atlanta and New Orleans this past weekend only helps serve as a reminder to his players they're not out of it.

Short agrees.

''The fight our guys have in them and the desire not to quit, you see it, so it's just a matter of time before things turn around,'' Short said.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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