After the tumult of last weekend’s shocking and disturbing allegations against Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson settled down, there was this matter of preparing for a game – an important one, at that.
While the NFL’s investigation into Richardson’s workplace misconduct is just getting started, the Panthers (10-4) have a chance to sweep their three-game homestand and wrap up a playoff berth for the fourth time in five seasons.
Standing in their way is Tampa Bay (4-10), which brings its MASH unit to Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
With a victory, Carolina would be tied with Green Bay and Seattle for most playoff berths in the NFC over the past five seasons. (The Seahawks still have an outside chance to earn a playoff spot for the fifth year in a row.)
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The Buccaneers placed five players on injured reserve this week, including their top two picks this year in tight end O.J. Howard and safety Justin Evans, plus cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and guard J.R. Sweezy.
Plus, Tampa Bay will be without wideout DeSean Jackson and defensive end Robert Ayers against Carolina.
It’s a game the Panthers should win easily. Bookmakers have Carolina as a 10-point home favorite.
But Panthers coach Ron Rivera says all his players need to do is rewatch the Bucs’ 24-21 loss to Atlanta on Monday night to be reminded that Dirk Koetter’s team has not yet mailed in the season.
Despite the injuries that piled up for the Bucs, only a missed 54-yard field goal by Patrick Murray prevented them taking the Falcons to overtime.
“Tampa got after Atlanta and they were a field goal away from tying it. They fumbled in the red zone. So it’s not like they didn’t come out and compete,” Rivera said Friday. “That was my message: These guys took (Atlanta) to the mat. They went to the very end and then unfortunately they missed the field goal. Who knows what would have happened after that? So let’s pay them their due.”
While the Bucs are banged up in a big way, the Panthers are relatively healthy.
Right guard Trai Turner will miss his second consecutive game while in the concussion protocol, although he has started working on the side at practice.
Slot receiver Russell Shepard (questionable with a shoulder issue) looks to be the only other player who could miss the game because of injury, although outside linebacker Thomas Davis will serve a one-game suspension for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Green Bay’s Davante Adams last week.
A victory Sunday guarantees the Panthers at least a wild-card berth. A Carolina victory coupled with a Saints loss to Atlanta would make the Week 17 game between the Panthers and Falcons in Atlanta for the NFC South title.
That scenario also means the New Year’s Eve game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be flexed to the primetime slot on NBC, based on what Rivera’s hearing.
“Let’s say Atlanta wins, now you’re talking about (a matchup) that’s really cool,” Rivera said.
But Rivera reiterated Friday that he believes trap games are real, citing the Panthers’ Week 7 loss at Chicago as evidence.
“You start talking, ‘OK, playoff seeding, what happens if Atlanta does (this)?’” Rivera said. “Well, if we don’t take care of our business …”
The Panthers have been adept this season at keeping their blinders on and playing well despite the road bumps that have popped up off the field. The Richardson allegations qualify as chaos.
But one of the Panthers’ veteran leaders says the best way to deal with the distractions is to finish strong.
“Right now the best thing we can do is focus on winning,” center Ryan Kalil said. “I really want to go to the playoffs. I really want to make a run at the Super Bowl. It’s hard enough when everything is going right and there’s no distractions or anything like that. I think as an older guy, the best thing I can do is make sure everybody’s staying focused and we stay on course.”