Sunday, December 27, 2015

Panthers need to be smart

If the Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons today, they'll be 15-0 and the quest for an undefeated season will continue.

I hope they're smart about it.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to win the Super Bowl. Going undefeated would be a consequence of that quest. But going undefeated should not be the team's primary focus. Winning the Super Bowl should be.

The Panthers have already clinched a playoff berth and a first-round bye in the playoffs. A victory today would guarantee them home-field advantage in both the divisional round and the conference championship round, so they still do have something significant for which to play.

But if the Panthers find themselves in control of the game early, I want to see them take out their starters. Why risk injury? The team is already playing without starting running back Jonathan Stewart, who is recovering from a foot sprain. He is likely not going to see action again until the playoffs begin.

The focus right now should be keeping quarterback Cam Newton as far away from the risk of injury as possible. Clearly, Newton is in the midst of a spectacular MVP-type season and there should be no reason to jeopardize Newton's health in the team's remaining games.

If the Panthers win today, Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, linebacker Luke Keuchly, cornerback Josh Norman and maybe a few others should be given minimal playing time next Sunday in the regular season finale against Tampa Bay — just enough PT to stay sharp, but not enough to risk injury in the quest for an undefeated season.

I haven't seen any indications that going undefeated is a primary goal for this team. I think coach Ron Rivera knows what's at stake and is trying to balance sensibility (winning smart) with sentiment (going undefeated). It's a tough act, but so far, so good.

In a perfect world, the Panthers defeat the Falcons today, then look at next week as if it were an exhibition game — the starters stay in for a quarter, then yield to the reserves, who, incidentally, could hone their own skills for the playoffs.

I know it's not a perfect world. Both the Falcons and the Bucs (if it comes to that) see a target on the backs of the Panthers' jerseys. And for that reason, the next two games could be the mot difficult of the season for Carolina.

They've been smart about it so far. I hope it continues that way.

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