Q&A: Carolina coach Ron Rivera on Cam Newton's return

FLOWERY BRANCH — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked about the return of quarterback Cam Newton, facing the Falcons and not being ashamed about going to the playoffs with a losing record during his conference call with the Atlanta media on Wednesday:

Here are some of the highlights:

Q: What’s been working for the Panthers over this three-game winning streak?

A: More than anything else we've had some continuity for once. Up until that point we had started eight different offensive lines. Now, we've had the same group of guys start together for three straight games. Defensively, we settled in on what our secondary seems to be. Those guys have played three straight games together. We've got our running game going again with a healthy Jonathan Stewart back there. I guess that it's been a number of those little things. Those things have really gotten us back to the formula that we had last year when we were winning and that's being able to run the ball and play good defense.

Q: What’s gotten into Jonathan? Was it just a matter of him getting healthy?

A: At one point, Jonathan said to me that he really feels like this is the healthiest that he's been in the last couple years. That was good to hear because it's certainly showing. I think that's the big part of it, he's healthy.

Q: How’s Cam Newton recovering from the accident?

A: He's moving around pretty well. He was very effective the other day. He ran the ball. He threw the ball. Handed it off. All of those things that he needed to do to give us an opportunity to win a football game. When he's a true triple-threat (defenses have a tough time) handling him.

Q: How hard was it to get him back on the field after the car accident?

A: He had his seat belt on. He was blessed. He really was and was very fortunate. We went through the protocols. He got out of that, he was sore and wasn't ready to do anything. We didn't push anybody. We didn't push him. The doctors sat down with him and the trainers and talked about the best way for him to prepare himself and get himself ready again. . . . we followed exactly what the protocol was that was set by our doctors.

Q: What’s your team’s leadership been like?

A: We lost a lot of guys in the offseason through free agency. When you really add it up, we're talking about 12 guys. Four offensive linemen, four wide receivers and four defensive backs have transitioned on to our units. Because of that, we've had to work through some things. The veteran leaders are the guys who stepped up and kept us together through the hard times. It's starting to show and I'm real proud of those guys.

Q: How do you like the pressure that your front seven is getting on quarterbacks?

A: I like it. It's taken a little bit to find our footing. Our secondary is playing well together. The front seven has really kind of developed their own personality right now.

Q: How’s rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin improved?

A: It's been a process. It really has. We started him from Day One. We had a real good feeling about him. I think (wide receivers coach) Ricky Proehl and our offensive coaches did a real nice job in terms of scouting Kelvin out and then finding out how he would fit for us. I don't think Kelvin got enough credit coming out either. I think there were a lot of people whispering about what he's abilities were and weren't. That all seemed to be stuff that really wasn't true. He studies. He works hard. He's assimilated himself to what we do and how we do it. He's been everything that we'd hope he would be.

Q: Would you be ashamed to enter the playoffs with a losing record?

A: I'm not apologizing. It is hard to win a division in this league. You are going to have one of two things, if you have three teams in your division, like what happened a few years back, where a 10-6 team didn't make it out of this division. Remember Tampa Bay was 10-6 when both Atlanta and New Orleans went. Nobody, apologized for somebody being average at 8-8. It's just the way it's set up. Divisions are going to be up. Divisions are going to be down. I was in San Diego when we went as an 8-8 team. I remember Seattle went at 7-9. We won our first round and Seattle won their first round. So, you just don't know.

Q: How did the Panthers stick together through the 0-6-1 streak times?

A: I listen to what their players have been saying about sticking together (and taking it) one (game) at a time. That's the kind of mantra you need to have in this league. You could have been hot like Philadelphia and now look at them. It's unfortunate for their circumstances. We are all in this together. We all are working hard in our division. We haven't lost sight of it. They haven't lost sight of it. I think it's going to be a heck of a football game.

Q: Is there something to be gain from the adversity of this season?

A: It's a rallying cry. We've fought through it and they've fought through it. What's going to happen? We'll see. That's why we are going to play it on Sunday. I'm excited about it. I really am. Whoever gets to go forward, it's going to be exciting from them.

Q: What did you see on film from the Falcons defensively against the Saints?

A: I think the decision early to attack and be aggressive was good for them. I thought some of the coverages that they mixed in were really good. Then it was just their physical and aggressive nature. Kudos to them in terms of getting after New Orleans. They played a solid football game. You have to give them credit.

Q: Are you expecting more fights in this game?

A: We have to all be smart about it. We don't want it to go the other way. We want it to be a good physical contest that's clean. At the end of the day, both teams can step away and say, 'boy, we gave it our best.'

FALCONS FAN MAILBAG: We take your questions from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Friday.

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