The Carolina Panthers will head to the Bay area under much different circumstances than they did in late January.
There will be no send-off party or any of the hype and weeklong build-up that preceded Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara., Calif.
That is not to say the 10-day, two-game trip to Oakland and Seattle lacks import. In fact, the Panthers’ playoff lives are riding on it.
The make-or-break nature of the West Coast swing prompted Panthers coach Ron Rivera to remind his players Monday this is a business trip.
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“We’ve left ourselves very little wiggle room. So go out and take care of our business and we’ll take them one at a time,” Rivera said. “I wanted to make sure they understood this is a business trip and we’re going there for two reasons, and two reasons only.”
I wanted to make sure they understood this is a business trip and we’re going there for two reasons, and two reasons only.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera
The Panthers (4-6) are two games behind first-place Atlanta (6-4) in the NFC South.
Carolina has won three of its last four, but faces a pair of first-place teams in the Raiders (7-2 entering Monday night’s game vs. Houston) and the Seahawks (7-2-1).
“This is a very important stretch (for) down the road. We’ve got to go in there with the right mindset,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “We’ve got some tough games – Oakland and then at Seattle.”
Veteran fullback Mike Tolbert insists the Panthers are a good team, too.
“Even though the record don’t show it, we’ve got some good talent on this team and I believe in us,” Tolbert said.
When the NFL schedule came out in April, Rivera said team officials weighed the pros and cons of making back-to-back, cross-country trips versus staying out west for the week between games.
Ultimately, the Panthers decided that remaining in northern California after Sunday’s game at Oakland would be easier on players than spending about 20 hours on airplanes over two weekends.
“I think it’s the right move, especially because it’s such a far trip,” Coleman said. “It’d be different if we were in Kansas City and we were going (west). It’s like a good, five-hour flight. And it wears on you.”
Needing ‘two dubs’
After playing Oakland, the Panthers will spend the week practicing at San Jose State, their practice site before the Super Bowl.
They’re staying at a different hotel than they did Super Bowl week. But Rivera said that had more to do with available meeting space than superstition.
Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short says he’s fine with returning to San Jose State’s campus, as long as the results are different.
“Weird? Nah, just as long as we’re not back in the same position,” Short said. “We’ve just got to come back with a win now.”
Or two wins – which Short referred to as “two dubs.”
Such talk seems to fly in the face of the one-game-at-a-time sports cliche.
But Coleman said: “If we don’t take care of Oakland, it doesn’t matter what we do in Seattle.”
The Panthers will get a day off during their week in San Jose before flying to Seattle to face the Seahawks for the seventh time in the past five seasons, including playoffs.
Coleman said players need to maintain their focus while on the road for so long.
“Even though it’s going to be in California when we’re getting ready for Seattle, we have to treat it just the same. We can’t enjoy the beaches -- maybe if we get a day off,” Coleman said. “But in all honesty, we have to approach it the right way. And if we do we’ll put ourselves in the right position to win these games.”
The Panthers will be missing several key players for at least one, and maybe both games.
Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly and left tackle Michael Oher are in the concussion protocol. Defensive end Mario Addison, the team’s sacks leader, has his right foot in a soft cast and is expected to be out a couple weeks.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil re-injured his right shoulder last week against New Orleans. And nickel back Leonard Johnson is dealing with several injuries that likely will sideline him multiple games.
Tolbert said he thinks the backup players will step up and help the team rally. Rivera hopes the extended time together on the plane and in the hotel will create bonding experiences.
Meanwhile, Coleman sees the two games against division leaders as the Panthers’ last chance to prove themselves as contenders – or return home as pretenders.
“Some may see it as a vacation, but it’s a business trip for us. We’ve got our jobs cut out for us,” Coleman said. “But I wouldn’t rather do this with anybody else but this team. I’m excited for the opportunity that we have to go out there and really show not just Oakland, but this whole league what we’re about.”