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Week 14 Snaps: Unbeaten Panthers now must balance dominance, health

The Panthers look invincible at 13–0, but after several health scares in their 38–0 rout of the Falcons, can they stay razor sharp <em> and </em> healthy as they head into the playoffs?

CHARLOTTE — Musings, observations and the occasional insight in a blowout-strewn Week 14, with six of Sunday’s 11 early games being decided by a comfy two touchdowns or more. And nobody won more easily than the undefeated Panthers, who simply toyed with the demoralized Falcons over the course of an epic four-quarter beatdown...

• I lost track of how many times Panthers Nation held its breath Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium, but it was definitely winded by the end of Carolina’s 38–0 demolition of the unraveling Atlanta Falcons.

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Panthers fans had to feel a little sick to their stomachs when they saw quarterback Cam Newton writhing in pain and holding his left wrist as he briefly took refuge on the sideline in the second quarter. They no doubt gasped when star tight end Greg Olsen was forced from the game with a knee injury shortly afterward. Lead running back Jonathan Stewart gave everyone a scare when it was announced he suffered a foot sprain and wouldn’t re-enter. And then there was the ankle injury to inside linebacker Luke Kuechly, kicker Graham Gano getting checked out for a concussion, and cornerback Bené​ Benwikere breaking a leg in the fourth quarter of a game that had long been decided.

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Fourteen weeks into the NFL’s regular season, the Carolina Panthers are scary good, and look downright invincible. But if there’s anything Ron Rivera’s 13–0 team should be fearing these days it’s the injury factor, when balanced against the need to maintain its late-season intensity and be playing its best ball as the postseason arrives.

Here’s the challenge to come in Carolina, which has already set its franchise record for most wins in a regular season: The Panthers could possibly play just one more meaningful game in the regular season—next week at the Giants—but they still must find a way to stay razor sharp despite not opening their playoff run until the weekend of Jan. 16-17 in the NFC Divisional round, which is still five long weeks away.

Yes, there is that perfect season to pursue, and that’s no insignificant carrot at the end of the stick. But thanks to the 2007 Patriots, 16–0 wouldn’t be making history, only 19–0 would. And the Panthers have said they won’t be concerned with perfection if it gets in the way of chasing a Super Bowl ring. But with the NFC South division title locked up last week, and a first-round bye secured with Sunday’s win, Carolina has only homefield advantage in the NFC left to check off its list, and it has a two-game lead over No. 2 Arizona (11-2) with just three games remaining in that race.

Momentum has been Carolina’s season-long companion, but what now, with so much of the heavy lifting alreadyaccomplished? Can the Panthers stay the course, stay focused and stay dominant, while somehow not losing anyone vital to their playoff hopes in the league’s long war of attrition called the regular season? It's a fine line to walk in the days ahead.

In the post-game, I dropped by the locker of a sage veteran, Panthers defensive end Jared Allen, to collect his thoughts on the balancing act that will be Carolina’s coming three weeks or so.

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“It’s obviously good, right, to keep focusing on the smaller tasks, because each week when you play for the smaller goals, the larger goals take care of themselves,” Allen says. “Every team in the league starts out with the goal of being a Super Bowl winner, but you’ve got to hit benchmarks along the way. We locked up our division, now we’ve locked up a first-round bye, and we still have an opportunity hopefully to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

“I know that back in 2009 [in Minnesota], we lost a couple games we shouldn’t have lost, including a game here on a Sunday night that ended up keeping us out of the No. 1 seed. We got a bye, but we had to go to New Orleans for the NFC Championship Game, and that really changed things. It’s important to get everything you can.”

The Panthers, for the most part, were fortunate against Atlanta. They got the 38-point win, and didn’t lose anyone long-term except for Benwikere, who added important secondary rotational depth. Newton missed just one play before taking the entire fourth quarter off, and Olsen and Stewart could have gone back into the game if it had been important enough, Rivera said. But Sunday’s game felt like a relief when it was finally over, and that might be the nature of existence for the Panthers in the coming month.

“I thought we got lucky,” said Olsen, whose left leg was pinned underneath him on a heavy-contact play in the Carolina end zone. “I obviously can’t speak for Stewart, but I think I’ll be fine. It’s a little sore, but I’ll be fine... Any time it’s your knees or anything like that, it’s concerning. But I think after the initial little bit of settling down and I stood up on it, that’s when I knew that I was going to be all right and it wasn’t going to be anything bad. I’ll be good.”

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It’s a tricky dance, but Carolina, of course, is not the first team to be facing this kind of good problem at this time of year. The Panthers will lock up the NFC’s No. 1 seed soon enough, and then we’ll see for sure how much the lure of going undefeated means to them. No one I talked to is expecting Carolina to be taking its foot off the gas.

“Absolutely not,” Newton said, when asked if his team will approach the rest of the season differently with an eye towards good health in the playoffs. “We play games to win football games. No matter what the plan is moving forward, we still have to be prepared to get geared up and get prepared for the next opponent.”

It all sounds good, but we’ll see how Rivera plays it from here on out. Sunday represented something of a bullet dodged. As Allen noted, Rivera played on the famed 1985 Bears (18–1), so keeping up a sense of momentum after a dominant season isn’t completely a foreign idea to him.

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“He knows how it happens and how you’ve got to go about it,” Allen said. “But I know how this team is, too. It’s a perfect mix of veterans, mid-career guys and young guys. You’ve got guys who know what the job is each week. In football, if you stop playing 100%, stuff happens. You keep going. You stay focused.”

At 17 regular-season wins in a row and counting, the Panthers keep taking care of business, which was never more vividly displayed than Sunday against the outmatched Falcons. So Carolina is now 13–0 and looking like an unstoppable force. Check back in a month or so to see if anything’s changed, but for now, somebody had best warn the Giants what’s headed their way next week.

• It was impossible to watch Atlanta play against Carolina and see anything but a complete train wreck, with the Falcons down 21–0 after the first quarter, essentially turning the last 45 minutes on the clock into garbage time.

Atlanta is simply horrible right now, but maybe our biggest mistake was buying into the notion that the Falcons had arrived way back when they were 5–0 this season. That was the aberration. The more recent seven losses in eight games underlines the reality that Atlanta has a lot of work to do under rookie head coach Dan Quinn.

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At least now there’s no illusion that the Falcons (6–7) are about to snap out of it and rescue their playoff hopes. Not happening. But also not happening is this: Quinn is not in danger of losing his job after just one season, and Atlanta’s struggling quarterback, Matt Ryan, has not lost the confidence of the team’s coaches or front office. Far from it. He’s in a slump. But he’s still the guy.

In some ways, the worst thing that could have happened to the Falcons was that 5–0 start, which skewered expectations for 2015. It bears remembering that Atlanta feasted on the wretched NFC East early this season, beating the Eagles in Week 1, when Philly was still a mess, knocking off a Giants team that can’t hold a fourth-quarter lead in Week 2, and catching Dallas in its first game without Tony Romo at quarterback in Week 3. Throw in a home win over Houston in Week 4, which had its own quarterback problems early on, and another dome win against Washington, and there was more mirage than magic in that fast getaway.

• I’m no doctor, but a fracture in the thumb of his throwing hand sounds like Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is, at a minimum, out for the rest of the regular season. And that probably means Cincinnati’s hopes of winning one of the AFC’s two first-round byes just took a major hit. The Bengals play at San Francisco and at Denver in the coming two weeks, then finish up at home against Baltimore. Cincinnati lost 33–20 at home to Pittsburgh on Sunday, and now sits 10–3 and nearer to the AFC’s No. 3 seed slot on the heels of New England’s win over Houston in the Sunday night game.

And you know what the third seed means, a game in the first round of the playoffs. And you know what the first round of the playoffs mean in Cincinnati, a one-and-done postseason for four consecutive years (2011-2014). So the Bengals really need Dalton healthy to have a chance to snap that dreadful streak.

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I’ll give Bengals backup quarterback A.J. McCarron points for confidence. He threw for 280 yards, with two touchdowns and two costly interceptions against the Steelers, then dropped a Tom Brady reference on us in the post-game, linking himself to No. 12 in terms of his unexpected starting shot at hand.

“You gotta love pressured moments,” McCarron said. “That’s what makes you great. It’s when the great ones really shine. I guess Tom Brady was in the same situation when he had the the opportunity.”

Well played, A.J. Well played. And you didn’t even mention that both you and Brady are married to celebrities.

• The Steelers' win at Cincinnati should mean they’re part of the AFC playoff field when the tournament kicks off next month. That’s how pivotal a Week 14 win was for Pittsburgh (8–5), because with its road games at Baltimore and Cleveland in the final two weeks of the regular season, the worst I see the Steelers finishing is 10–6. And that’s not even giving them a win next week at home against Denver (10–3), in a game in which they’ll be favored.

I’m not sure Pittsburgh has enough time to catch the Bengals and win the AFC North, given it is two games back with three weeks remaining, but the Steelers will be a dangerous team once it makes the AFC bracket.

• In the end, LeSean McCoy didn’t exactly rub Chip Kelly’s nose in it. The Buffalo running back, spurned by the Eagles when he was traded this off-season, finished with 109 yards rushing and receiving, but didn’t do enough to be a difference-maker in the Bills’ 23–20 loss at Philadelphia. There were no fireworks from the man they call Shady. Just a lot of pre-game talk that he didn’t really back up in any memorable way. And when it was over, he refused to speak to the media about the game, ending his homecoming week on a very weak note indeed.

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The Bills, of course, were largely done in by the Bills. Buffalo committed a whopping 15 penalties for 101 yards, and that’s been the problem all season in Rex Ryan’s first year on the job. Buffalo’s lack of discipline eventually comes back to bite it, and now, at 6–7, the Bills are essentially doomed to watch the playoffs on television for a mind-boggling 16th consecutive season.

• You can’t blame this damaging Denver loss on Brock Osweiler, his first in four games as Peyton Manning’s replacement. Osweiler did enough to help the Broncos win with 308 yards passing on 35 completions, but crucial drops by Demaryius Thomas and Vernon Davis were the game-changers in Oakland’s huge 15–12 road win in Denver.

And as game-changers go, Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack was a one-man wrecking crew, with five sacks of Osweiler, including one for a safety that made the game 12–9 in favor of Denver in the third quarter.

And before anyone goes calling for the re-emergence of Manning as the Broncos starter, it would be better off if Denver were to rediscover its running game. Whatever happened to Gary Kubiak’s vaunted touch with a ground game? The Broncos had just three first downs via rushing, and gained all of 34 yards on 21 carries (an 1.6 average rush).

Get that fixed and Osweiler won’t be out there trying to win the game all by himself. Denver kicked four field goals in the first half — all 41 yards or shorter — and it was that lack of red-zone execution that cost the Broncos dearly in their first loss to the Raiders since September 2011.

• He only started playing lights out this season in Week 11, so does that mean it’s too late for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to interject himself into the MVP discussion? I’m starting to think he belongs in the debate with Cam Newton, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer.

Wilson and the Seahawks rolled once again on Sunday, pasting the outmanned Ravens 35–6 in Baltimore, improving Seattle to 8–5 and lifting it into the NFC’s No. 5 seed slot. Wilson threw for 292 yards and five touchdowns against the Ravens, without an interception. He now has thrown for at least three touchdowns without an interception in four consecutive games, tying a league record held by Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, otherwise known as the Trinity among NFL quarterbacks.

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And what has gotten into Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin? He caught another pair of touchdowns in the rout of the Ravens, giving him eight in the Seahawks' past three games. Baldwin caught just three scoring passes in Seattle’s first nine games this season.

• What a funk Bears kicker Robbie Gould has fallen into. Gould missed a potential game-winner last week in a home loss to San Francisco, and followed it up by failing badly on a game-tying 50-yard attempt in the Bears’ 24–21 home loss to Washington. Gould has practically been the gold standard (sorry, couldn’t resist) for years in one of the NFL’s toughest stadiums to kick in, and suddenly he can’t make a clutch attempt. He has six misses this season in 13 games, and that used to be about two years' worth of failures for him.

Go figure Chicago. The Bears stun everyone with a win at Green Bay in Week 12, and then drop consecutive home games to the 49ers and Washington, two sub-.500 clubs. Just winning the past two weeks would have put Chicago firmly in the NFC wild-card hunt, but now John Fox’s team is 5–8 and would have to finish 3–0 just to get to break-even.

But credit Washington (6–7) for gutting out a road win, something it hadn’t done all season, just six days after losing a heartbreaker at home to Dallas on Monday night. Kirk Cousins continues to play his way into Washington’s future, completing 24 of 31 passes for 300 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Nine of those completions for 120 yards and one touchdown went to Jordan Reed, with that duo quietly becoming one of the most productive in the league of late.

Washington stayed in first place in the NFC East with the win, and snapped its nine-game road losing streak in the process. A Week 16 trip to Philadelphia for a Saturday night game could be the showdown that will decide the winner of the NFL’s worst division.

• I’ll bet Browns head coach Mike Pettine wishes he would have started Johnny Manziel sooner, and Mike McCarthy would probably take a re-do on his decision to have offensive coordinator Tom Clements call his team’s plays for the first 13 weeks of the 2015 season. Both coaches were rewarded for their moves on Sunday, with Cleveland snapping its seven-game losing streak with a 24–10 home victory over San Francisco, and Green Bay steadying itself with a 28–7 defeat of Dallas at Lambeau Field.

Manziel was an efficient 21 of 31 for 270 yards, with one touchdown and one interception in the Browns win. Manziel had that one memorable sideline meltdown when he bashed his tablet into his helmet three times after throwing an interception, but he looked and played under control for the rest of the day. And his strong showing might just be enough to take a little heat off Pettine for the time being.

McCarthy’s touch on the game plan didn’t cure all of Green Bay’s problems, but it was pretty promising to see the Packers churn out 230 rushing yards, and have receiver Randall Cobb involved in the offense to the tune of eight catches for 81 yards. The game against the Cowboys was no cakewalk, but Eddie Lacy and James Starks gave Green Bay a sense of ball control on the ground, and the Packers (9-4) reasserted themselves as the NFC North’s best team, a full game and the tiebreaking advantage over Minnesota.

• Nobody in Kansas City should be caring much about style points in the wake of the Chiefs’ 10–3 win over visiting San Diego. Kansas City won a sloppy game that was played in the rain and messy conditions at Arrowhead Stadium. Big deal if it wasn’t pretty. All that matters is that the Chiefs’ playoff express kept rolling, to a seventh consecutive win.

The Chiefs' defense held off the Chargers on the game’s final drive, when San Diego had marched to within the 1 yard line, thanks to three consecutive fourth-down conversions by Philip Rivers and Co. And Kansas City has yet another defensive star at its disposal, with former first-round pick Dee Ford making three sacks in just his second career start. With pass rusher extraordinaire Justin Houston sidelined by injury, Ford stepped in and did his best Houston impersonation.

The Chiefs play at Baltimore next week, and still have winnable home games remaining against Cleveland and Oakland. At 11–5, they’d be an ultra-tough No. 5 seed to run into, and going to either Indianapolis or Houston to face the No. 4-seeded AFC South champion would be an inviting way to start a playoff run.

• Who I Like Tonight: Consecutive losses to the Patriots, Washington and the Jets have put the Giants on the brink of collapse, but that’s usually when New York does its best work. Tom Coughlin’s job status is again a front-burner issue, but there’s still time to bend this season’s narrative in the Giants’ favor. It starts with this trip to South Florida and getting a win that keeps New York locked in a tie with the Eagles and Washington atop the lowly NFC East. The Dolphins have their own hot-seat-candidate coach to play for in Dan Campbell, but this time the former Giants tight end and his team won’t be able to land a damaging blow to New York’s tenuous playoff hopes. Giants 20, Dolphins 17.