GREEN BAY – Ron Rivera was a rookie head coach with a rookie quarterback when the Packers and Panthers last met at Bank of America Stadium. The year was 2011 and the Packers eked out a 30-23 win.
Five years later, Rivera and his quarterback, Cam Newton, are the centerpieces of a 7-0 Carolina team that’ll host one of the biggest regular-season games in Panthers history. Sunday, the 6-1 Packers will attempt to rebound in a game that could decide homefield advantage for the playoffs.
“I have core leadership guys that have been with me all five years now. They get it,” Rivera told Packers media on Wednesday.
Newton is at the heart of the Panthers’ core leadership. His stats aren’t gawdy – 11 touchdown passes, eight interceptions and a 78.1 passer rating – but he led the Panthers to a final-seconds win in Seattle, and is making the kinds of plays with his feet that make him a dual threat that’s tough to defend.
“He’s made a gigantic leap forward,” Rivera said of Newton.
The Panthers have made a gigantic leap from the team that was blown out at Lambeau Field last season. A 38-17 Packers win was a 38-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“They got after us pretty well. There’s not much more to say about it. We’ve had a chance to go back and review it,” Rivera said.
The Packers will be facing a team with three prominent names on defense: linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and cornerback Josh Norman.
Through six games, Norman has intercepted four passes, returning two of them for touchdowns. He’ll line up against a Packers receiver corps smarting from a 29-10 loss in Denver in which the Broncos’ secondary carried the night.
“He’s a very confident football player. The hardest thing for him was adjusting to the strictness of the way we do things. He’s one of the most confident football players I’ve ever been around,” Rivera said of Norman.
A win in Seattle three weeks ago and Monday’s overtime win over the Colts have the Panthers’ confidence at a franchise high heading into this Sunday’s game.
“The big thing, if you talk to the players, is going into a hostile environment in Seattle and winning a game with a last-second touchdown. The other night against Indy, we gave up the lead and were able to regain momentum, make a couple of plays and win in overtime. In the past we might not have been able to do those things,” Rivera said.
What did Rivera think when he saw Aaron Rodgers’ stat line from the Denver game?
“We’re so used to the good numbers that you think that was one drive. Denver did a heckuva job,” Rivera said.
Carolina relies on the league’s No. 1 rushing attack, which is aided by Newton’s 286 yards and four rushing touchdowns, and a pass rush that’s produced 20 sacks.
“The perception is this game could mean everything as far as homefield advantage in the playoffs. To think in those terms, in my opinion, is a mistake. We’ve got a long way to go,” Rivera said.
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