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NFL: Panthers seek strong finish

By Fred Goodall
Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. ó The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers are on the verge of missing the playoffs again, yet both teams feel they have plenty to play for over the final month of the NFL season.
The NFC South rivals who are rebuilding around young, strong-armed quarterbacks meet twice in the next four games, hoping to fuel solid stretch runs that reaffirm they are franchises headed in the right direction.
The Bucs (4-7) have lost five straight and six of seven overall following a 3-1 start. The Panthers (3-8) have already won more games than a year ago when they finished with the leagueís worst record, landing in a position to select Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton with the top pick in the draft.
Despite failing to play up to expectations created by going 10-6 last season ó Josh Freemanís first as a full-time starter, Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris believes his players have the mettle to climb back into playoff contention without making wholesale changes over the final five games.
The challenge begins today, when the Bucs try to avoid falling into the division cellar with the last-place, but improving Panthers.
ěYou only change the approach if you think itís broken,î Morris said. ěItís not about the approach. Itís about us doing a better job than weíre doing. We have to go out and execute at the end of ball games in order to win. Weíve been in three ballgames at the end, and weíve lost them. Last year at this point, we won them.î
Carolina coach Ron Rivera certainly knows what itís like to have a young quarterback who changes the mind-set about a teamís capabilities.
Newton has been impressive from Day 1, and is the fourth rookie in NFL history to throw for more than 3,000 yards, joining Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford.
Rivera knows the type of expectations thatís created for the Panthers, so he understands what the Bucs are going through.
Six of Carolinaís eight losses have been decided by a touchdown or less. The last two, though, were by 27 points at home to Tennessee and 14 at Detroit.
ěThis Tampa Bay team, I see the young talent, the young ability. I love their quarterback. I love the receiver in (Mike) Williams, they got the veteran tight end in (Kellen) Winslow. Itís a team thatís still learning itself because itís a young football team,î Rivera said.
ěI know they had a lot of success last year, but I think with the success more expectations are raised. Some of them are fair, some of them arenít. Weíve gone through that the last few weeks. Weíve played pretty good and all of a sudden people are thinking: ëThey can be better than this, they can be better than that.í Then, next thing you know we donít play well against Tennessee and people are asking: ëWhatís wrong?í I donít think thatís a fair question in light of the situations and circumstances weíve gone through as far as being a young team.î

Elsewhere today, it’s undefeated Green Bay at the New York Giants, winless Indianapolis at home against New England, Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Baltimore at Cleveland, St. Louis at San Francisco, Detroit at New Orleans, Atlanta at Houston, Tennessee at Buffalo, Dallas at Arizona, Denver at Minnesota, Oakland at Miami, Kansas City at Chicago and the New York Jets at Washington.
San Diego is at Jacksonville on Monday night.
On Thursday night, Seattle beat Philadelphia 31-14.

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