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NFL: Panthers open in San Diego

By Bernie Wilson
Associated PressSAN DIEGO ó One week he was considered a pop-off, a mouth from the South who yapped at everyone from the home crowd to fans on the road and even an opposing quarterback.
The next week he’d turned into a gamer, playing for the AFC championship with a shredded ligament in his right knee as his San Diego Chargers fell one win short of going to the Super Bowl.
It was almost crazy how fast things turned around for Philip Rivers.
“Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction from the outside world,” Rivers said. “It’s funny how quickly it spun.”
While it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever stop being an excitable type, Rivers will take that newfound respect into his third season as starter when the Chargers host the Carolina Panthers today.
Rivers is 27-9 as a starter, including playoffs, and leads a talented team that many feel can make it all the way to the Super Bowl.
Yet for a good stretch of last season, as the Chargers took various twists and turns in Norv Turner’s first season as their head coach, Rivers made more news with his mouth than his passing arm.
During a home victory against Baltimore on Nov. 25, which started an eight-game winning streak, Rivers yelled “shut up” to fans who booed on two straight plays.
In the fourth quarter of a Christmas Eve win against division rival Denver, TV cameras caught the QB and two defensive teammates having an animated conversation with Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler.
After hurting his right knee at Indianapolis in a playoff game on Jan. 13, Rivers was walking to the locker room for treatment when he told someone in the crowd, “I’ll be back.”
It was that knee injury that changed the way a lot of people looked at Rivers.
He not only played the AFC championship game with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but revealed the next day that he was able to so only after having arthroscopic surgery to clean out the joint a day after the win against the Colts.
Three days after the Chargers’ playoff run ended, Rivers had reconstructive surgery.
His teammates lauded his gutsy play in the 21-12 loss to the Patriots. Outsiders, even if grudgingly, did the same.
“You hear fans that didn’t like Philip, that didn’t think Philip was being a professional at quarterback, and to see him battle through the ACL and playing those games, I think outside perspective has gained a lot more respect for Philip,” tight end Antonio Gates said.
Among them are Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who’s coming back from reconstructive surgery on his right elbow, and safety Chris Harris.
“He’s just a winner,” Delhomme said. “You’re going to have surgery anyway so go play on it. He gives the team the best chance to win, so tape it up and let’s go. He looks like the kind of guy who says that and does that. So to me, I have respect for him even more. You want a quarterback to do anything and everything possible to play to get his team to win and that was huge by him.”
While the Chargers begin the quest for their third straight AFC West title, the heat is definitely on Carolina coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney after the Panthers missed the playoffs for two straight seasons.
With a such a big opener looming, the last thing the Panthers need is to be without leading wide receiver Steve Smith. Smith was suspended for the first two games by the Panthers for sucker-punching Ken Lucas in practice on Aug. 1, breaking the cornerback’s nose.
With Ryne Robinson and Jason Carter out with knee injuries, the Panthers have only three healthy wide receivers. They are Muhsin Muhammad, Dwayne Jarrett and D.J. Hackett, who returned to practice Wednesday after missing a month with a toe injury.
“Jake should have confidence in going to other guys on the team,” Muhammad said. “We just have to pick up the slack.”
The Panthers think they’re better than last year’s 7-9 finish. They’ll certainly be challenged in their opener, and they already know what it’s like to play without Smith. Two years ago, the Panthers opened 0-2 while Smith sat out with a hamstring injury.
“It wasn’t much fun,” Fox said. “But I think, hopefully, we are a better team now. We’ve definitely got a tall order going out there against a team that was 7-1 at home last year and some people are picking to be the Super Bowl representative of the AFC.”

The season opened Thursday night with the Giants beating Washington 16-7 in the traditional opener hosted by the Super Bowl winner.
In other games today, Dallas is at Cleveland, Detroit at Atlanta; Cincinnati at Baltimore; Seattle at Buffalo; the New York Jets at Miami; Kansas City at New England; Tampa Bay at New Orleans; St. Louis at Philadelphia; Houston at Pittsburgh; Jacksonville at Tennessee; Arizona at San Francisco; and Chicago at Indianapolis.
Minnesota is at Green Bay and Denver at Oakland in a Monday night doubleheader.

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