CHARLOTTE --Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the energy level that has been missing in practice the past three or four weeks was back on Friday.
He said perhaps players finally took a deep breath after seeing their undefeated season end last week at Atlanta and realized "let's get back and get refocused.''
Here are three things to keep an eye on as the Panthers (14-1) attempt to refocus for Sunday's regular-season finale against Tampa Bay needing a win to assure home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Who will step up offensively?
Starting running back Jonathan Stewart (foot) and backup Fozzy Whittaker (ankle) are out. Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (knee) likely is out as well. That's 2,059 yards of total offense and 18 touchdowns missing. Quarterback Cam Newton threw for a season-low 124 yards in the first meeting between these teams. He also rushed 12 times for 51 yards, but don't look for the Panthers to put him at risk of being injured with a lot of runs with the playoffs up next. Look for rookie Cameron Artis-Payne to be the featured back, with undrafted rookie Brandon Wegher getting his first snaps of the season as a change-of-pace back. As he demonstrated in the preseason, Wegher is fast. Devin Funchess and Corey "Philly" Brown will take a bigger role at wide receiver, but don't be surprised by Brenton Bersin. He led Carolina with four catches for 54 yards in a Week 4 win over Tampa Bay.
Who will return punts and kicks?
Let me introduce you to cornerback Robert McClain, a fifth-year player who spent the last three seasons with Atlanta. He'll replace Ginn as the punt returner. He returned 19 punts for 193 yards in 2013. That's the only year he returned kicks. McClain says it's no big deal to step into this role late in the season. Don't be surprised by a lot of fair catches. Replacing Whittaker as the kickoff returner won't be quite as difficult. Whittaker had only nine returns all season. Look for a combination of Joe Webb, Wegher and Teddy Williams there.
Safety Kurt Coleman, who has a team-best seven interceptions, is doubtful with a foot sprain. Tre Boston is set to start. Boston started toward the end of last season, so there shouldn't be a huge concern there. Coleman could use the rest after missing only eight snaps all season. What will be interesting to watch is cornerback Josh Norman. He hasn't had an interception since facing the Buccaneers in Week 4. A lot of that has had to do with teams throwing away from him. But Norman appeared to have lost some of his swagger last week against Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones. The Buccaneers have big receiver in Mike Evans who could require Norman to shadow him. The Panthers need that swagger to make a run deep into the playoffs.
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