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Carolina Panthers in ‘great situation’ for stretch run injury-wise

Heading into their most important stretch of games in five years, the Carolina Panthers are as healthy as they’ve been all season.

Of the eight players on the Panthers’ injury list, six are listed as probable for Sunday’s game at New Orleans in a matchup for sole possession of first place in the NFC South.

That group includes defensive end Charles Johnson (knee), running backs DeAngelo Williams (quadriceps) and Jonathan Stewart (ankle) and No. 2 tight end Ben Hartsock (knee) – all of whom are expected to play against the Saints.

Outside linebacker Chase Blackburn, who missed the last three games with a foot issue, also will be back in the starting lineup.

“I think that’s a great situation to be in, as we get into this stretch run and get everybody back healthy,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday. “Hopefully, we can continue on that way.”

Johnson, who leads the Panthers with 8.5 sacks, and Hartsock, one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, missed multiple games with knee sprains. Rivera indicated both probably could have played last week against Tampa Bay, but the team’s depth at tight end and defensive end allowed the Panthers to hold them out so they would be ready for the Saints.

In addition to Sunday’s game at the Superdome, the Panthers (9-3) and Saints (9-3) play again in Charlotte on Dec. 22.

“We’re excited that we got those guys back,” Rivera said. “I think the thing that it also showed is we have young guys that are in the wings that have played a lot for us, that have made plays for us as well.”

Rivera said Blackburn would reclaim his starting spot from A.J. Klein, a rookie who played well in Blackburn’s place. Rivera said Klein would still have a role on the defense.

“When Chase left because of the injury, Chase was playing really well, too. It’s not like we’re putting a guy in that hasn’t had success,” Rivera said. “Believe me, this was not an easy decision. It was weighed very heavily.”

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