CHARLOTTE – The Panthers displayed a toughness and togetherness in Sunday's scrappy 30-15 victory over the St. Louis Rams that pleased head coach Ron Rivera but didn't surprise him.
"I think they had that mentality already. Yesterday was the first time they were really tried, and there was an opportunity for them to show it," Rivera said. "The opportunity to draw the line came, and the guys did. That's part of being a team."
An already physical game reached a rare level early in the second half, when a skirmish led to the ejection of Rams defensive end Chris Long for throwing a punch. Several scraps broke out over the remainder of the game, but the Rams more often than not were the team that ended up in hot water while the Panthers kept their collective cool.
"I thought Coach Rivera did a better job of helping us handle those situations with personal fouls," safety Mike Mitchell said. "I got some earlier (in the season), but they quickly let me know that we don't do that here in Carolina."
The rarely shy Mitchell was in the middle of the final blow-up Sunday after he made a play on St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford in front of the Rams sideline. Mitchell raised his arms in celebration, unaware that Bradford suffered a knee injury when he tumbled to the turf. He kept his arms raised to keep them out of harm's way as Rams guard Harvey Dahl took exception and drew his second personal foul flag.
"Mike got out of there and stayed away from it. That's about maintaining composure," Rivera said. "Mike is a guy that's really learning and maturing as he's gone through the season. He understands his responsibility, and he's playing as hard as he can every chance he gets."
Rivera knows first-hand how valuable a hard-nosed mentality can be from his playing days with the Chicago Bears.
"In 1985, we win the Super Bowl," Rivera said. "In 1986, it was pretty much the same team, but we didn't have that same type of mentality."
"They decided they weren't going to let Luke make a hundred tackles," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "They started going to the second level to block Luke, and so KK (Kawann Short) and Star (Lotulelei) and CC (Colin Cole) all had to make those plays, and they did.
"They've got to pick their poison, and we've got tackles that are playing at a high level right now and can help us."
While the defensive tackle trio combined for five tackles for loss, Kuechly was limited to a career-low three tackles. McDermott said that rather than blocking the Panthers' tackles in tandem before releasing to block Kuechly, a Rams' interior lineman was immediately engaging Kuechly, leaving the Panthers' defensive tackles in one-on-one matchups.
"People around the league are keeping an eye on Luke. I would, too," McDermott said. "All he cares about is winning. As long as he's doing his job – which he was – that's all he cares about. He's not into stats and numbers. That's why he's such a joy to be around."
READY FOR ACTION: Rivera said he expects running back Jonathan Stewart to practice for the first time Tuesday as the Panthers quickly turn the page in advance of Thursday night's game at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Rivera wasn't ready to say if Stewart, who has been sidelined by an ankle injury, might possibly play Thursday. Once he practices for the first time, the Panthers will have three weeks to either activate him off the physically unable to perform list or leave him there for the remainder of the season.
"We'll have to see," Rivera said. "He had a really good week last week, but we'll go through the whole procedure and see how he feels after each workout."