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NFL: Panthers visit Chargers today with coaches on hot seat

SAN DIEGO — Thank goodness for Cam Newton and his explosive threat to score via ground or air.

Otherwise, today’s game between the Carolina Panthers and San Diego Chargers would merely be a matchup of losing teams that somehow came up with big upsets last week, but slogging toward the end of miserable seasons.

San Diego coach Norv Turner is expected to get fired at season’s end. Carolina’s Ron Rivera could join former boss Turner in the unemployment line.

The Chargers (5-8) are mathematically, if not realistically, alive in the playoff race and desperately trying to avoid their first losing season since 2003. They’re much closer to missing the playoffs for the third straight season than somehow pulling off a miracle.

Carolina (4-9) certainly isn’t going anywhere. After stunning the Atlanta Falcons 30-20, the Panthers are just trying to win consecutive games for the first time since last December.

With a 10-19 record in two seasons, Rivera knows exactly what it’s been like for Turner, who was an unpopular hire in February 2007 and has gone 22-23 since San Diego’s last playoff appearance — an embarrassing home loss to the New York Jets following the 2009 season.

“Yes, you really do because there’s a Spanish proverb that says, ‘It’s easy to write about fighting the bull, but it’s tough to get in the bull ring and fight,’ “ said Rivera, who was on Turner’s first staff and had risen to defensive coordinator before taking the Carolina job in 2011. “I was there when we heard it in 2010 and we had some bad things happen. You kind of feel for him, but now I really understand. To see who he is and the way he handles it with grace, believe me, people have no idea how much character it takes to do this, and coach Turner has exhibited that year in and year out as a coach in this league.”

After this year, though, it might be hard for Turner to continue as a head coach. Although he’s 54-39 in the regular season with the Chargers, he’s 112-121-1 in head coaching stints with Washington, Oakland and San Diego. Chargers general manager A.J. Smith is expected to get fired, too, due to glaring roster deficiencies.

Turner and Smith got a reprieve last year when the Chargers used a 4-1 run to finish 8-8. Philip Rivers lobbied for Spanos to keep Turner.

“I feel the same way about him and I feel the same way about the games we’ve lost, which are on us, on me. I think enough was said last year. … My feelings, my belief in him hasn’t changed, would never change. I’m just going to focus on what I can control,” the quarterback said Wednesday.

Carolina owner Jerry Richardson fired GM Marty Hurney — a former Chargers assistant GM — after a 1-5 start. At that time, Rivera said he was told by Richardson the team needs to be “trending upward” the rest of the season. The Panthers are 3-4 since.

Working against Rivera, though, is that Richardson still needs to hire a new GM, who likely would want to bring in his own coach.

Newton, meanwhile, is in the best stretch of his career.

After a rough start in which he had 10 interceptions and just eight touchdowns passing 10 weeks into the season, Newton has 11 combined touchdowns and no turnovers in his last four games.

Newton was spectacular in the win against the Falcons, completing 23 of 35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns. He also ran for 116 yards, completing a 72-yard touchdown run by somersaulting into the end zone. He jumped to his feet and pretended to rip open his shirt like Superman.

“People think it’s easy to come play in this league, and what Cam has done from where he started to where he is now, it’s incredible,” Turner said. “To think you’re not going to have some ups and downs when you’re learning to play in this league is absolutely crazy. If you’re smart and you have good patience and you keep coaching the same things and doing the same things over, which is what Carolina has done, then you see stretches like this. And you get a feeling of what it can be in time when a guy gets to a point where he understands the preparation.”

Newton, who worked out in San Diego with quarterbacks coach George Whitfield Jr., before being picked No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft, tried to keep things in perspective.

“We’re not going to put our farsighted glasses on,” he said. “We’re going to put our nearsighted glasses on and just worry about trying to make the most of practice, homing in on our mistakes and make sure we’re as sharp as we can be come Sunday.”

After the Chargers earned their first regular-season win in Pittsburgh in 15 tries, their fans were left wondering where that effort was all year. Now the Bolts would be elated to get to .500.

“We have to keep winning,” Rivers said. “I’m not getting ahead of myself but it would be awesome to get to 8-8. … It would say something about us and our ability to finish the year.”

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