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Strickly Panthers: Defense determined


CHARLOTTE - Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said the New Orleans Saints' offense is "about as good as they come."

Carolina's defense is embracing the task of trying to slow down what may well rank as the most prolific offense in NFL history by the conclusion of Sunday's regular season finale between the NFC South rivals.

"I think it's really the challenge more than anything else – that's what we've talked about," Rivera said. "It's a measuring stick. This is a team you want to measure yourself against."

Even if Carolina's improving defense excels, it could be difficult to prevent the Saints from reaching a couple of records. They need 219 yards to break the NFL's all-time total offense mark of 7,075 yards held by the 2000 St. Louis Rams, and they need 16 first downs to break the NFL record of 398 held by the 2004 Kansas City Chiefs.

The Saints average 457.1 yards and 25.5 first downs per game. In a 30-27 victory at Carolina in Week 5, they had 444 yards and 27 first downs.

One thing that could change the equation is whether the Saints offense will go all-out the entire game. New Orleans is still fighting for a bye in the NFC playoffs, and head coach Sean Payton said Wednesday that his team is "full speed ahead."

Last season, however, the Saints had three starters injured in a similar situation in the season finale and then lost in the first round of the playoffs.

"I understand why it's a tough position," Rivera said. "Coach Payton made the decision last year, and a couple of guys got nicked up and it probably hurt their chances. He's trying to weigh every issue. No matter who he plays, we're going to show up and do the best that we can."


ALIVE AND KICKING: If the Panthers can hang close like they did in the teams' first matchup, kicker Olindo Mare could find himself in position to help decide the game.

Rivera is hopeful that the team's recent decision to provide Mare with some competition could help in such a scenario.

After Mare missed a late field goal against Atlanta in Week 14 that could have given the Panthers the lead, the team signed rookie kicker Adi Kunalic to provide competition. In the two games since, Mare has made both of his field goal attempts and all 10 of his extra points.

"I think bringing Adi back has helped him to refocus," Rivera said. "It's a tough job, but he's a veteran guy that has made a lot of kicks in the past. He'll hopefully learn from the experience and get better."

Rivera said the team has been pleased with what Kunalic has brought and intends to retain him throughout the offseason. Rivera also reiterated that the goal will be to get back to carrying just one kicker next season.

"It's been invaluable for us to have a 46-man roster and have 43 guys that play positions," Rivera said, exempting the kicker, punter and long snapper spot. "I think that's important."


SIGNATURE MOMENTS: Rookie quarterback Cam Newton has signed countless autographs since joining the Panthers, and he plans to continue to do so – just not in every single setting.

"Of course I would like to show my support to my fans. I see the fans lined up after practice, but I can't sign everything," Newton said. "If I'm able to do it, I do it. I'm not trying to be rude if I say no. I'm just trying to enjoy life just like everyone else."

Newton referenced a recent restaurant outing with 20-some family members as a far-from-ideal time for autographs ("And nobody really asked because I think they got the memo that I was trying to have dinner with my family," he said). He also mentioned a recent outing to watch the Charlotte Bobcats in action.

"I think I would be taking away from the value of the game if I was selfish enough to say, 'I'm going to have an autograph signing in the basketball arena,' " Newton said. "I don't care if you're on ESPN every single day or you've never been on ESPN – I still need my seven hours of sleep, just like everybody else. I still like food, just like everybody else. And I want to enjoy the game, just like everybody else. I'm human."

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