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Carolina Panthers’ relevance gets a Monday test from New England Patriots

It has been five years since ESPN trained its “Monday Night Football” cameras on Charlotte, five years since the Carolina Panthers have been, in the words of their coach, relevant.

During their time in the NFL wilderness, the Panthers traded out their coach and general manager, drafted a franchise quarterback and played a lot of meaningless games in November and December.

But those games mean something this year.

After a last-second loss at Buffalo left the Panthers 0-2, there were questions – some from within the organization – about whether Ron Rivera would be fired if they were to lose to the New York Giants in a game that preceded their bye week.

Two months later, the Panthers (6-3) have ripped off five straight wins, there are photoshopped pictures and a radio ditty about “Riverboat Ron,” and the speculation about Rivera’s job security soon might be replaced by calls for a contract extension.

But first, there is the matter of Monday night against – as Panthers quarterback Cam Newton called them – the New England Patriots.

The Panthers’ 10-9 win at San Francisco last week proved the Panthers could beat a quality opponent. The victory against the defending NFC champion 49ers was Carolina’s first against a team with a winning record.

The Patriots (7-2) have a winning record, like every year. New England is the only team in the NFL to finish above .500 in each of the past 12 seasons.

If Carolina knocks off the Patriots, Rivera will need to swap “relevant” for a different adjective, maybe “playoff-bound.”

“Coach Rivera says it all the time: We’re relevant right now. But we can’t just stop and say, ‘Hey, let’s pop bottles. Let’s celebrate, order some hot wings and pizza,’” Newton said. “We’re just halfway through the season. We just have to continue doing the things that’s putting this feeling in our hearts because it’s becoming a special thing to watch.”

Way back when

The last time the Panthers hosted a Monday night game was December 2008 in a matchup with Tampa Bay for first place in the NFC South.

The Panthers’ 38-23 win sent the Buccaneers spiraling to a season-ending, four-game losing streak that left them out of the playoffs at 9-7, and led to the firing of then-coach Jon Gruden, who’s back in Charlotte for a big Monday night game, this time in the ESPN booth.

Paced by running back DeAngelo Williams (186 rushing yards and two touchdowns) and wideout Steve Smith (117 receiving yards and a touchdown), the Panthers thumped the Bucs to take sole possession of first place and went on to finish 12-4 and earn a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

“That was a good night for us,” center Ryan Kalil said. “That was a fun night, and that was against a good defense, too.”

The divisional round game against Arizona at Bank of America Stadium was less fun, especially for quarterback Jake Delhomme. Buried under Delhomme’s five interceptions, the Panthers were routed 33-13, exited the playoffs meekly and were scarcely heard from again over the next four years.

Until now.

“The last game that everybody was excited for was when we lost to Arizona in the playoffs. That was the beginning of a rough time for this organization,” veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “I’m glad we’ve earned the excitement that’s around this game because it’s a lot more fun when people care.”

People have begun to care. USA Today and FoxSports.com sent reporters to Charlotte in the days preceding the Patriots game, and the “Monday Night Football” trucks began rolling in Friday.

Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, among ESPN’s analysts in town for the game, said the way the Panthers defeated the 49ers – sacking Colin Kaepernick six times and holding the Niners to 45 yards in the second half – was impressive.

“It wasn’t bells and whistles. It was just beat them up,” Dilfer said. “For two years (the Panthers) have started slow and had to fight their way back. You learn a lot about yourself when you have to fight your way back, especially when you’re saving your coach’s job.”

Dealing with the ‘master surgeon’

But Dilfer said Tom Brady, a two-time league most valuable player who has three Super Bowl rings, is a cut above the other quarterbacks Carolina’s second-ranked defense has faced this season.

“They now defensively are going to have to play against the master surgeon. They’re going to have to play graduate school defense because they’re playing against a dude that holds multiple doctorates at quarterback,” Dilfer said.

“Against the Niners, you have to bring two chinstraps. Against the Patriots, you’ve got to bring your chinstraps and a stackload of books.”

Dilfer has seen upstart teams fall flat in big games. Exhibit A was last year when the Houston Texans, with the league’s best record at 11-1, traveled to Foxborough, Mass. on a Monday night in early December and were blasted 42-14 by the Patriots.

The Texans wound up losing three of their final four regular-season games and went down to New England again in the playoffs 41-28.

“The good thing is Carolina is hosting so they don’t have to go up to Foxborough. And New England doesn’t have the same mojo it’s had in the past,” Dilfer said. “But they’re still playing a different beast. Any time you play one of these Mount Rushmore quarterbacks – Brady, (Drew) Brees, (Aaron) Rodgers, (Peyton) Manning – it’s a different beast.

“(The Panthers) can say all they want, ‘He’s got a normal jersey, No.12. We’ve studied him on film.’ It’s just different because they live to make you feel weak. They live to humble you.”

Since training camp, the Panthers’ secondary has been the ugly stepsister to the front seven, which features 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker, two pass-rushing forces in ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, and a pair of high draft picks in rookie tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.

The expectations from some observers is an elite quarterback like Brady will expose the flaws in the secondary, but it hasn’t happened yet. Entering Sunday, the Panthers were tied for first with 13 interceptions, and only three teams had allowed fewer passing yards per game than Carolina’s 201.3.

“People are going to say, ‘Push the ball down the field, attack the secondary.’ I don’t see it,” said Dilfer, who won a Super Bowl with Baltimore. “They don’t play a lot of exposed man coverages where it’s just mano a mano. They play good help defense. They play soft with their corners (with) underneath guys. … They mix in enough blitzes that you can’t just sit there and know what your protections are going to be.”

Offensively, the Panthers have relied on a balanced attack under first-year coordinator Mike Shula, a more methodical play-caller than predecessor Rob Chudzinski, now the Browns coach. What the Panthers have lacked in big plays, they’ve made up for with a clock-chewing, ball-control approach and fewer mistakes from a more mature Newton.

New England coach Bill Belichick said the Panthers pose problems in all three phases.

“It’s a huge, huge challenge playing the Panthers down there,” Belichick said. “They’re playing as well as any team in the league. They’re a well-balanced team.”

Better than 2008? And 2003?

Gross, in his 11th season, and Smith are the only players remaining from Carolina’s 2003 team that lost to New England 32-29 in the Panthers’ only Super Bowl appearance.

Gross, a rookie in 2003, said most of the Panthers’ players probably weren’t even interested in football 10 years ago. And while the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and played in two others with Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback, the Panthers haven’t made the postseason since 2008.

But the teams’ histories won’t matter much Monday, when the Panthers, who are 2.5-point favorites, look for their biggest win in Rivera’s three-year tenure.

“We don’t check the (betting) line too often,” Gross said. “I would call it a wash honestly if I was going to pick a team. They’re 7-2, and we’re 6-3. Some of their players have played in a lot of big games, some of them haven’t. They’re a little bit in a transition time at a lot of their positions, and that’s a good thing for us.

“Any time you can play a Tom Brady-led Patriots team it’s a big game. And if we win, I’ll sure be excited. I won’t be happy if we cover the spread or not.”

Pro Bowl center Kalil said he believes this year’s Panthers team is more talented than the 2008 version, and he heard Delhomme tell him the current team is superior skills-wise to the ’03 Super Bowl team, as well.

“I’ve always felt that we had the right coaches, we had the right guys,” Kalil said. “I’ve always felt that if we continue to stay the course, if we continue to stay positive and continue to fix the things that are keeping us from finishing these close games, or keeping our leads, or whatever the case may be, it would eventually pay off.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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