Published 12:00 am Monday, December 30, 2013

CHARLOTTE — Panthers coach Ron Rivera is hoping an extra week off will enable his team to get back to full strength and make a run at the Super Bowl.
Along with capturing the NFC South division championship Sunday, the Panthers wrapped up a first-round bye in the playoffs. That’s huge for a team in dire need of getting star receiver Steve Smith and two other key role players back on the field.
Carolina’s passing game struggled in a 21-20 win over Atlanta with its wide receivers combining for a mere 22 yards on four catches without Smith.
Rivera said the game “illustrates what a veteran number one receiver does for you. I think it will be good to have him back out there and I believe he will be back out there, just knowing Steve.
“It’s a challenge for him and he expects to be there.”
Said offensive coordinator Mike Shula: “Steve is a warrior and he’s hard to replace. You need guys like that when you get to the postseason.”
Shula added that he was disappointed “in general” with the offense’s performance after being limited to 283 yards and 16 first downs by the Falcons.
The Panthers had to rely heavily on their defense, which had a franchise-high nine sacks and returned a Matt Ryan interception for a touchdown.
“We’re just a little bit off,” Shula said.
Tight end Greg Olsen agreed, adding: “We were just out of sync for whatever reason. We have to get that fixed before the playoffs.”
Rivera hopes the extra time off gives running back Jonathan Stewart, who is recovering from a torn MCL in his knee, and defensive tackle Colin Cole, who has a strained calf, enough time to return.
Others could use some rest, too.
Carolina hasn’t had a bye since Week 4.
“It’s something that we needed,” quarterback Cam Newton said after the game. “We got a lot of guys that we need back that play an intricate role in making this team go.”
Olsen believes it will be a huge help.
“To get some guys back mentally and physical fresh will do wonders for us,” he said.
Rivera said the Panthers will approach this week like a normal work week with practices on Wednesday through Friday and some light work on Saturday. Several players are expected to get time off to rest their legs.
The Panthers will host a playoff game Jan. 12.
If Philadelphia beats New Orleans, the Panthers will host the Eagles. If New Orleans wins, the Panthers will host the winner of the San Francisco-Green Bay game.
The Panthers have been in an eerily similar situation before.
In 2008 they also won the NFC South with a 12-4 record to earn a first-round bye and a home game. However, that season ended disastrously with quarterback Jake Delhomme turning the ball over six times in a 33-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
This is Carolina’s first trip back to the postseason and Rivera made it clear his team isn’t just happy being here.
“It’s satisfying, but not satisfying,” Rivera said of winning the NFC South. “It is one of the goals you set for yourself and for your team. We accomplished that first one but there is a lot more left to go.”
The coach said the biggest thing he’s learned about his team this season is its resilience.
At one point the Panthers were 2-14 under Rivera in games decided by seven points or less. However they’ve won their last five games decided by that margin, including four of those in come-from-behind fashion.
“They have confidence now to go into a fourth quarter and believe they can get it done,” Rivera said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned.”
Rivera said the growth of the team this season has been a reflection of the team’s two leaders on each side of the football — Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
“As we see Luke get better and better the defense gets better and better and the same thing with Cam. As he’s gotten better the offense has gotten better,” Rivera said. “Those are two pillars that this team can be built off of.”