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  Carolina Panthers - Team Report
December 30, 2011
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Look for Panthers rookie Cam Newton to be a little extra motivated this week against the Saints after missing out on the Pro Bowl.

Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Eli Manning made the NFC team ahead of Newton.

Newton has combined for 34 touchdowns, while Manning has 27.

That said, there's a good chance Newton, a first alternate, will see action in the game if any of the other three quarterbacks ahead of him leads his team to the Super Bowl. He could wind up joining two Panthers teammates who are headed to the Pro Bowl.

Wide receiver Steve Smith will make his fifth appearance, while center Ryan Kalil will make his third appearance.

Smith joins kickoff returner Michael Bates and defensive end Julius Peppers as the only Panthers to make five Pro Bowls.

"It's an honor and a privilege to be selected because it shows the respect of your peers," said Smith, in his 11th season out of the University of Utah. "Next to the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl is the biggest honor in our profession."

Smith is enjoying a renaissance this season. He is third in the NFC with 73 receptions. Smith has 1,308 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

Behind Kalil, the Panthers are third in the NFL in rushing. The team has rushed for more than 100 yards in a franchise-record 13 consecutive games, including 270 last week against the Bucs, the second-highest mark in franchise history.

This marks Kalil's third consecutive appearance in the Pro Bowl but the first time he's been voted into the game. The rosters will be updated between now and kickoff, with players who reach the Super Bowl as well as those who are injured bowing out.

With Smith and Kalil starting every game, the Panthers rank fourth in the NFL in total yardage and fifth in scoring.

"You are only as good as the guys you play next to, and I have been fortunate to play next to some really good offensive linemen and have two good backs and a heck of a quarterback," said Kalil, in his fifth season out of the University of Southern California.

Along with Newton, left tackle Jordan Gross was also selected as an a first alternate.

The Pro Bowl will be played Jan. 29 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.

The Panthers have had at least one Pro Bowl selection in 15 of their 17 seasons.

SERIES HISTORY: 34th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 17-16. The Saints look to tie up the series and complete a season sweep Sunday. In the last meeting, the Panthers had the Saints on the ropes, but Drew Brees threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas with 50 seconds left to lift New Orleans to a 30-27 win.



PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES



--The Panthers rank third in the NFL with an average of 149.6 rushing yards per game, and they have run for more than 100 yards in a team-record 13 straight games.

The team's ground game features three players -- running backs DeAngelo Williams (783 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (682) and quarterback Cam Newton (674) -- with more than 600 yards rushing.

The last team to feature three players with 600 or more rushing yards in a single season was the 2006 Falcons. Running backs Warrick Dunn (1,140) and Jerious Norwood (633) and quarterback Michael Vick (1,039) led the Falcons' ground game that season.

The Panthers have a chance to become the only team in NFL history with three players with 700 or more rushing yards.

--The Panthers rank fourth in the NFL in total offense, averaging 395.7 yards per game. A large part of the offense's success is its ability to gain yardage in chunks. The Panthers have produced an NFL-leading 86 plays of 20 or more yards this season.

The Panthers have registered 64 passes and 22 runs of 20-plus yards under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

On the 64 big pass plays, the Panthers are averaging 29.7 yards and have scored eight touchdowns. On the 22 big run plays, the Panthers are averaging 30.0 yards and have scored six touchdowns.

The success producing big plays is a departure from 2010, when the offense finished the season tied for last in the league (with Atlanta) with 44 plays of 20 or more yards.

"We caught a lot of momentum in the latter part the season with not just making plays, but also understanding what coach Chudzinski is trying to with the blocking schemes. ... If it's third down, we can try to get a gist of what he is about to call," Newton said. "Understanding the route concepts. Why is he calling this play? When you have the running backs understanding it just as much as I am understanding it, and when the linemen are correcting me if I make a mistake with calling a play, that's something special.

"It just tells you how much we evolved from the beginning of the season with everybody's heads turning, with the short offseason, with the lockout taking place. Everybody's just, in the latter part of this season, grabbing the bull by the horns and taken responsibility learning the whole offense and making plays at the same time."

--Chris Gamble has had a terrific season, yet he received no love in the Pro Bowl voting. In fact, he wasn't even voted as an alternate.

That's likely due to how poorly the Panthers' defense played overall, although Gamble certainly held up his end by shutting down the opponents' top receivers.

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- Receptions Steve Smith needs to become the franchise's all-time leader in that category. Muhsin Muhammad holds the record with 696 catches.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You want to finish strong, and that is what we want to do. We want to come in next week and do the same thing we did last week and prepare for New Orleans and try to do the same thing we did (against the Buccaneers)." -- Cornerback Chris Gamble.



STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Panthers didn't make any roster moves this week, but look for Armanti Edwards and Kealoha Pilares to see their first real action when the team goes to three-receiver sets. Legedu Naanee is out, which means Brandon LaFell starts and one of those two has to step into the No. 3 receiver role.

PLAYER NOTES

--DE Charles Johnson has been bothered by a sore back for the past three weeks, but the Panthers are hoping he can go Sunday at New Orleans. Johnson has done his best playing through a lot of pain.

--OL Geoff Hangartner has done a terrific job filling in at right guard for Geoff Schwartz this season. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers re-sign Hangartner, a free agent, in the offseason or simply go with Schwartz when he comes back.

--K Olindo Mare seems to be holding onto the starting kicking position even though the team brought in Adi Kunalic two weeks ago.

--LT Jordan Gross was named as a first alternate to the Pro Bowl after being a starter last year.

--RB DeAngelo Williams has five touchdowns in his last four games.

INJURY IMPACT

Starting WR Legedu Naanee has been ruled out for the game with a broken bone in his foot. That means Brandon LaFell will get the start. Naanee and LaFell have been sharing time as starters the second half of the season.

GAME PLAN: The Panthers know they'll need to score to keep up with the Saints, and that's exactly what they plan on doing in what should be a shootout.

Defensively, Carolina will have a tough time getting off the field, particularly without CB Captain Munnerlyn, who went on injured reserve last week. Darius Butler or R.J. Stanford is likely to start in his place.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams vs. Saints' front seven -- Williams seems to run for a lot of long touchdowns against the Saints. In the first meeting this year, he had a 69-yard touchdown run, and he figures to be an integral part of this week's game plan.

Saints QB Drew Brees vs. Panthers' secondary -- Bress threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers in the last meeting, a 30-27 Saints victory. He should have success against a secondary that is a little banged up. CB Captain Munnerlyn is out for the year, and S Charles Godfrey is nursing a sore shoulder.

   
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