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Carolina Panthers

What to watch: Panthers at Bears


It's been a trying week for coaches and players around Bank of America Stadium, but the Panthers can't afford to carry that baggage with them to Soldier Field for Sunday's matchup with the hard-charging Chicago Bears.

"We've got a job to do, so the insensitive part is that we can't focus on that," Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said in the wake of general manager Marty Hurney's departure. "We've got a tough task ahead, and those guys don't really care what's going on in our organization. They're out there to play a game.

"I can't run my route going, 'Man, it's been a tough week.' I've got to go out there and perform."

The Panthers also can't get caught up in the divergent plights of the teams if they hope to have the frame of mind needed for success. While Carolina has dropped four consecutive games to fall to 1-5, the Bears have reeled off four consecutive victories to stand at 5-1.

Here's what has to happen for the Panthers to turn around those trends.

DON'T GIVE IT AWAY: Given defensive end Julius Peppers' history in Carolina and his history of terrorizing quarterbacks, it wasn't surprising that a reporter asked Cam Newton if he'd be keeping an eye on Peppers.

"If you want to look at it like that, I'd be cross-eyed," Newton said. "Lance Briggs, Peppers, (Brian) Urlacher, a solid secondary. They're just a solid, solid defense."

The Bears are the stingiest defense in the league when it comes to the scoreboard, allowing just 13 points a game. They lead the NFL in takeaways with 21 and interceptions with 14, including a league-best four for cornerback Tim Jennings.

"A key to the game every week is protecting the football, and their defense does an excellent job with creating turnovers," Newton said. "It's as mature a roster as you'll see in the whole league."

In response, Newton and the offense must show maturity in their decision-making.

DON'T GIVE WAY: When the Bears defense gains possession for the offense, Chicago can attack in numerous ways.

"We've got to stop the run," Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said. "But they've also got a great quarterback and fast receivers that can take it down the field."

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's numbers are on par with Newton's, but Chicago is running the ball more effectively than Carolina. Matt Forte has had his way with the Panthers the last two years: 165 rushing yards in 2010, then 205 yards last year.

The Panthers have been pretty stout against the run in their last two games, and Cutler can be taken out of his game by a good pass rush. Carolina's defensive line must be ready to play.

DON'T GIVE UP: Behind the line, the Panthers had to move a key player on the next two levels of the defense – linebacker Jon Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble – to the growing injured reserve list since the last game.

Smith has the right attitude about it.

"That's football. Guys get hurt every day. You've still got to go out there and play," Smith said. "That's going to affect things, but sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you get some guys in there that are going to make some places."

Beason and Gamble missed the Panthers' last two games before going to IR, and the defense played well. Rookie Luke Kuechly thrived in his more natural middle linebacker spot, and a combination of Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Thomas got the job done at corner.

They must continue the effort, and those behind them must stand at the ready.


DON'T GIVE UP AN EASY ONE: Earlier in the week, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera discussed how moving kickoffs up five yards has allowed for more hang time on kicks and made things harder for return men.

"It takes a very special returner," Rivera said. "They have one."

In Carolina's crazy 34-29 loss at Chicago a year ago, Devin Hester established a new NFL record with his 11th career punt return for a touchdown. He added another one a month later but hasn't had one since.

By Hester's standards, he is overdue, and the Bears are 13-3 when he returns a kick for a touchdown. The Panthers simply can't afford to let him break one.

GIVE YOURSELF A CHANCE: Rivera again returns to Chicago, where he played nine years, coached five years and worked as a television analyst for four years.

"I was there for 17, 18 years. It's always going to be a part of me," Rivera said.

The Panthers came up short in Rivera's homecoming a year ago but did put up a franchise-record 543 yards in the process.

"There were a lot of big plays in that game - a lot of explosive plays – some things that we're missing this year," Rivera said. "It would be nice to get back to those. That's what we're looking for."

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