Notes: Panthers staying loose

CHARLOTTE – At first glance, head coach Ron Rivera feared his team was a little too loose in its preparations for Saturday's playoff game against Arizona.

Upon further review, Rivera saw that his team was taking an ideal approach that should serve them well when it comes to handling the pressures of the postseason.

"I got on them a little bit," Rivera said Thursday in reference to the Panthers' attitude toward Wednesday's practice, "but then when I watched the tape, I realized it was all business when they were on the field. They did exactly what they needed to do.

"They were paying attention and doing things the right way. Then when they got off to the side, they were relaxed. Today was one of the most business-like practices we've had, but again once they got on the sideline they were having fun and letting their personalities show. They are loose right now, but they're also focused. I think that's a huge plus."

Rivera said the tenor around the locker room is decidedly different than it was a year ago leading up to Carolina's playoff game, a home loss to the San Francisco 49ers in which the Panthers let the intensity of the moment impact them negatively.

"The difference is noticeable," Rivera said. "You worry about those things – about being too loose or too tight – but right now they're in a really good place. I like their comfort level."

CATCHING ON: Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin couldn't find his comfort level after what could have been a 71-touchdown reception that he dropped in the regular season finale, but the play taught him a valuable lesson just in time for his postseason debut.

"When the ball came, I saw the defender coming, and I tried to snatch it thinking touchdown. But like my coaches told me, 'Make the catch first,' " Benjamin said. "When I dropped that ball, it was a domino effect. It stayed with me. I learned that I have to have a shorter memory."

Benjamin is one of nine players on the Panthers' 53-man roster – roughly one out of every six players – who played for one of the four teams competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Benjamin, who caught the game-winning touchdown in last year's national title game, represents Florida State along with kicker Graham Gano. Opponent Oregon is represented by running back Jonathan Stewart and tight ends Ed Dickson and Brandon Williams; Alabama by safeties Roman Harper and Robert Lester; and Ohio State by wide receiver Philly Brown and guard Andrew Norwell.

Before doing an interview at his locker Thursday, Williams threw on an Oregon T-shirt, jacket and hat. It led to a bet with Benjamin, with the loser committed to wearing the other school's colors in the aftermath.

HEADS OR TAILS: When the Panthers won the coin toss early in the season, they typically deferred to the second half and started with their defense on the field.

Even with the defense peaking over the last month, Rivera has changed course and put the offense on the field first when possible – with outstanding results.

"We wanted to get the ball and be able to start fast with our no-huddle stuff," Rivera said. "That's been a real good thing for us in terms of tempo and momentum."

In the first 12 games, Carolina totaled 30 first-quarter points. During the Panthers' four-game winning streak to close the regular season, they scored 36 first-quarter points.

"Hopefully we can maintain that," Rivera said. "If we win the toss, we're obviously going to want the ball."

ROSTER ADDITION: The Panthers have signed veteran guard Tyronne Green to a "future" contract. A fourth-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2009 from Auburn, Green has played in 41 games with 28 starts. He was out of the league during the 2014 season.

Green's contract is referred to as "future" because he won't officially become a member of the roster until the beginning of the new league year on March 10.

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