CHARLOTTE – On Monday, when head coach Ron Rivera began transitioning to Sunday's game against Seattle, he talked about the type of weekly challenge the Seahawks face as reigning Super Bowl champions.
"They warrant everyone's best," Rivera said. "They're the defending champs, and they've got a good football team. People gear up for them.
"That game has been circled on a lot of people's calendars. I just circled it today."
Rivera is among a long line of NFL coaches who take a one-game-a-time approach, but when he could comfortably look at the big picture in the offseason, he saw the Seattle game as a signature showdown in the midst of a daunting stretch.
He also envisioned both teams going into it with better than the .500 records that they actually have.
"I thought we'd be better football teams, but circumstances and situations arise, some things that you can't control," Rivera said. "But at the same time we're professionals, so we've got to find answers and do things the right way."
The search for answers in the face of circumstances out of their control continues Sunday, with the injury bug that has bitten the Panthers throughout the season again rearing its head. NFL teams must declare seven players inactive on game day, and Friday's injury report features seven players already ruled out for Sunday.
Starting guards Amini Silatolu (calf) and Trai Turner (knee) are out, as are running backs DeAngelo Williams (ankle) and Fozzy Whittaker (thigh), wide receiver/returner Philly Brown (concussion), cornerback Bene Benwikere (ankle) and linebacker Chase Blackburn (knee).
None of the ruled-out players are a surprise – none of them practiced all week – but the Panthers got an unpleasant surprise Friday when running back Chris Ogbonnaya was unable to practice.
"He had a little stiffness and soreness in his groin area, so we pulled him out of practice today," Rivera said. "If we had to do something, we have a move that we still can make."
If Ogbonnaya can't play, the Panthers would have only Jonathan Stewart and Darrin Reaves as healthy backs. Tauren Poole is on the practice squad, but promoting him would require cutting someone from the 53-man roster.
In Carolina's last home game back in Week 5 against the Chicago Bears, Reaves and Ogbonnaya were the only backs to carry the ball, but Whittaker was active as an emergency option coming off a quad injury. It would help Carolina's cause if Ogbonnaya is at least healthy enough for the Panthers to take that same approach against Seattle.
The Panthers are coming off a 38-10 loss at Green Bay and must turn around and play NFC South foe New Orleans on Thursday, followed by a Monday Night Football tussle at Philadelphia. Rivera is fully focused on Seattle, of course, but he understands the importance of this stretch for a beat-up team battling to stay upbeat.
"Once we get into training camp, it's all about the next game to me. But going back to when I first looked at the schedule, you think, 'Wow, that's a heck of a stretch,' " Rivera said. "I look at it as a challenge, a stretch kind of like last year with San Francisco and New England (both wins for the Panthers).
"It's a stretch where if you do things right and things fall into place for you, it's something you can really build off of. That's what our intention is."