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Panthers need bounce-back game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Maybe it was some sort of reality check for the Carolina Panthers, who had been on a roll for more than a month.

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But now they need to bounce back when they face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at home.

In two games since the bye week, the Panthers haven't displayed the crispness that they played with before that break. They got away with it by posting a comeback victory over the New York Jets, but they weren't so fortunate in last weekend's loss to the New Orleans Saints.

"We still have to play a cleaner style of football," quarterback Cam Newton said.

The Panthers had their four-game winning streak stopped in the showdown last week at New Orleans. Carolina now trails the Saints by a game for the top spot in the NFC South, plus the Saints completed a regular-season sweep.

This marks the second week in a row the Panthers will face a divisional leader. Minnesota arrives on an eight-game winning streak.

Despite some rather ordinary numbers, Newton generally received positive grades for his outing against New Orleans a week after a thumb injury clearly altered some of his throws.

In part, the players around him must rise to the occasion.

"He made a lot of good reads, a lot of good decisions," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Unfortunately, we didn't capitalize on those."

There might be a tendency to put too much emphasis on the status of tight end Greg Olsen, who made an abbreviated return in the Jets game and then sat out against New Orleans because of foot soreness.

Olsen is considered one of the team leaders, so it's natural for there to be an emotional factor when he's not on the field. Rivera said decisions have to be made with the long term considered as well.

"You have to take everything into account," Rivera said. "He wasn't healthy enough where you want to put him out there."

It's trending this week as if Olsen will play against the Vikings. There is also a reminder that the Panthers had their best stretch of the season so far with Olsen as a spectator. In some of those games, tight end Ed Dickson filled in admirably.

"We had played well without Greg," Rivera said.

Of more concern could be the game-day status for linebackers Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson. Both have missed time with injuries during the past week, so that puts a big dent into the defense.

The Panthers realized that Davis would be limited with a hamstring ailment, so they had calculated into the game plan a cutback in his snaps. The goal was to have him healthier for a more regular workload against the Vikings. Thompson's foot injury has caused him to miss some practice time.

SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 8-5. Minnesota won the past two meetings, including a 22-10 victory last year in Charlotte.

--At least the Panthers have more time to adjust to the absence of defensive end Charles Johnson prior to the matchup with Minnesota.

They learned of his four-game suspension handed down by the NFL late last week, so that didn't provide for much time to adjust the script.

Johnson won't be eligible to return until the regular-season finale at Atlanta.

The immediate impact means that defensive end Julius Peppers might be called upon for more, but the Panthers have had a season-long plan to keep Peppers fresh and limit his snaps. So that means that Bryan Cox Jr., an undrafted rookie free agent, figures to have a heightened role.

It's a huge drop-off in experience, but head coach Ron Rivera often has been complimentary of Cox's ability.

"I really think he's a young man who has an opportunity to grow," Rivera said.

--The Panthers figure that they are on more solid turf this week. For them, that means natural grass.

Beginning a three-game homestand, the Panthers are hoping that will help some of their players, most notably tight end Greg Olsen.

"Playing on grass, playing at home," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I think that's going to help us with a few of the guys who are a little bit (banged) up."

Olsen made a one-game return after a broken foot, playing Nov. 26 on the road against the New York Jets. He didn't make it all the way through that game and then sat out this past Sunday at New Orleans. Both those games were played on artificial turf.

Rivera said the decision to keep Olsen out in the New Orleans game was made with the turf in mind. Now comes three games on natural grass.

"It's an ideal thing," Rivera said. "It's tough when you play on (artificial) turf. It's tough on the body, tough on the feet."

NOTES: LB Spencer Paysinger was signed to fill a hole among the reserves. He is a seventh-year pro who had participated in at least 14 games in each of his previous six years in the NFL, with stops with the Giants and Dolphins. ... LB Jared Norris (calf), who had been a part of special teams, was placed on injured reserve. ... DE Zach Moore was promoted to the active roster last weekend from a spot on the practice squad. ... LB Luke Kuechly's fumble recovery increased his total of takeaways to five this season. He has three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. ... RB Christian McCaffrey made five catches in the New Orleans game. He is top among NFL running backs this season with 64 receptions.

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