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NFL: Bright future for Panthers

Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó The Panthers have won four of their last five games. That has some wishing Carolina could keep playing and others looking to fast-forward to next season and a clean slate.
The Panthers may be 6-9 entering Sundayís season finale at New Orleans, but one thing in certain ó thereís plenty of optimism.
The team is buoyed by the thought of what sensational rookie quarterback Cam Newton might accomplish with a full offseason to work with coaches. Whatís more, 16 players are coming off injuries and the bulk of the roster is under contract.
ěI donít think thereís any question, everyone in this locker room is excited about next year,î tight end Greg Olsen said.
Coach Ron Rivera said he was talking with his coaches this week about how nice it would be if this were a 20-game season given the momentum the team has built the last month.
ěIf we had just had a few more weeks, who knows?î Rivera said. ěI wish we had a few more just to see, just to see if weíve reached that point where weíve matured enough.î
Newton, a leading candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with 34 total touchdowns and a first alternate for the Pro Bowl, said he ěabsolutelyî wishes the Panthers could keep playing.
He sees a completely different team now from the one earlier in the season. That one was tiptoeing toward an uncertain future; this one is surging, ready to bust up anything in its way.
ěItís evident on film,î Newton said. ěBut we canít get that back. You canít press rewind in life and you sure canít press fast-forward, so youíve got to live for the present. I think going into next year we have to focus on what we can control.
ěWe have to learn from it. There are going to be mistakes made and things we had back, but we had ample opportunities that we could have bounced back from to make a bigger difference.î
The Panthers enter the Saints game ranked fourth in total offense and third in rushing, a dramatic turnaround from last season when the Panthers were last in the league in total offense.
Theyíre as dangerous as any team in the league with Newton running the show and a talented running back duo in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart behind him, as well as a super receiver in Steve Smith and proven tight ends in Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.
And donít forget, an underrated offensive line that may be as good as any in the league behind Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil.
Middle linebacker Dan Connor is an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and is likely to go from starter to backup if Jon Beason returns. But Connor said he might be willing to pass up a starting role elsewhere if it means staying with the Panthers and being on a winner.
ěWeíre going to get a lot of guys back (from injuries) and with what weíve built this year I think weíre going to be a top contender next year,î Connor said.
Olsen said beating the Saints would be a huge confidence boost.
ěThe way these last four or five weeks have gone thereís just a real positive feeling heading into next year,î Olsen said. ěI think if you finish the season strong it gives a different kind of feel to the offseason program, a different sense of energy to the offseason.î
The Saints (12-3) have clinched a playoff spot and at least one home game. They are playing for a first-round bye, and the Panthers can do their part in preventing that.
ěYou really want to come out and play them the best you can because of what weíre trying to build and the attitude weíre trying to have,î Rivera said. ěTo lose now would be disappointing.î
ěI think our guys have done a nice job,î he added. ěTheyíve practiced well. Iím pretty excited about that, especially going into the last game … just trying to get them to understand we can make an impact in the playoffs. We may not be in but we can certainly impact them.î

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