CHARLOTTE – Last year, the Georgia Dome was a scene of heartbreak for the Carolina Panthers.
This year, it can be the place where they claim their first NFC South title since 2008.
"This is an important game, and we know that," head coach Ron Rivera said.
Quite a bit has changed since the Atlanta Falcons stormed back in the final minute to defeat Carolina 30-28 in Week 4 of the 2012 season.
"It was a signature loss I guess you could say," defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. "We had a team dead to rights. Defensively, we knew if we got into those situations again we needed to be able to come out on top. That's been the focus throughout the whole year."
Said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: "We had a heartbreaking loss last year in the Georgia Dome. But it seems like everything is going our way this year. This is a different team."
It sure is. And as the Panthers get set to travel to Atlanta in search of their 12th win and the division crown, the memory of their last visit may provide an added incentive.
"That's one that we definitely remember. You don't forget," Edwards said. "Some of the guys that were here last year will use that as motivation. We just have to find a way to win."
INJURY UPDATES: Steve Smith isn't expected to play in the regular season finale due to a sprained knee, but Rivera knows the veteran wide receiver will be back in the lineup as soon as possible.
"We are going to reevaluate Steve as we go along," Rivera said. "The thing about him is his toughness and his tenacity. With a guy like him, who knows? He's one of those guys that can will himself to do something.
"His timetable? I'm not going to set one, that's for sure."
Running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) is also not expected to play but Rivera indicated that he's making progress.
"He's working a little bit, but he's going to be listed as doubtful," Rivera said. "It's good to see him moving around."
CHRISTMAS ADJUSTMENTS: Tuesday is normally an off day for the players, but since they are getting Wednesday off for Christmas, the team held a light practice on Christmas Eve.
"The hard part about practicing on Tuesday is that for a lot of guys this is their big day to rest," Rivera said. "We were real careful with a lot of guys. It was good for a lot of our young guys to get a few extra reps.
"You always worry about their focus and attention, so what we did is we took the focus and attention and put it all on today's practice. It was a serious practice, and we got our work done. That way, tomorrow guys can focus on their family and then come in fresh Thursday after having a good day off. I'm hoping this is a good approach."
Rivera will come to the office on Wednesday to get some work done and told his assistant coaches to do the same if they feel the need to.
"I'll make my little list and then come in and do the little things that need to be taken care of as we get ready for Thursday's practice," Rivera said. "We'll have the players in that have to get treatment, and it's important for those guys.
"We're going to have those players in, so the least I can do is be here as well."