NFL Nation: Roman Harper

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bank of America Stadium was like a pot of boiling water on the stove as the Carolina Panthers practiced Tuesday.

In preparation for the noise they’ll face in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the Panthers closed all the entrances to the field and placed large speakers behind both goal posts and on the sidelines to contain the sound.

Only a handful of Carolina players have played at Seattle, the loudest venue in the NFL, so the coaching staff wanted to simulate as close as possible what they’ll face.

“The noise, it’s very hard to duplicate," said Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole, who spent the 2009-2011 seasons with Seattle. “It’s not something that is duplicable unless we have a dome and you’re pumping noise in throughout the entire dome.

“The crowd noise we have is an opportunity to give guys a taste of what’s going to come. But I’ve been there when they’ve been on 10 and you can’t hear the person next to you talk."

Could Cole hear the person next to him on Tuesday?

“Yeah," he said. “It was good. It wasn’t quite there."

It was louder than it would have been had the Panthers pumped noise onto the practice fields in the open. But there’s really nothing any coach can do to completely prepare for the atmosphere that has helped the Seahawks go 24-2 at home since 2012.

“It is the hardest place to play in the NFL right now for a reason," Panthers strong safety Roman Harper said. “The crowd is very smart. They know when to cheer, when not to cheer. It’s usually rainy; it’s not always pretty out there."

Harper played at Seattle when it was its loudest in a 2010 NFC wild-card game when he was with the New Orleans Saints. The crowd noise registered on the seismograph when Marshawn Lynch had his 67-yard touchdown run that exemplified "Beast Mode."

Tight end Greg Olsen played there when he was with the Chicago Bears.

“It’s hard to really describe it to people," he said. “Playoff game coming off the Super Bowl, I can only imagine it’s probably even more so than when I was there a couple of years ago.

“But it’s great. It’s what you would expect. It’s the atmosphere you would want for a playoff game, and I think for guys that are experiencing it for the first time, it’ll be an experience that they’ll remember for a long time."

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said he never experienced a louder stadium than when the Panthers played at Seattle in the NFC championship game following the 2005 season.

“Without a doubt, it was then and it still is the loudest stadium that we’ve played in," he said. “That still to me shouldn’t have an effect on this game. We’ve played in loud stadiums before, and it is all about going out and executing.

“We understand it is going to be loud and that it will be new to our offense that their fans are going to be loud. We practice with crowd noise, and we’ve just got to be able to handle that situation and I’m confident that we will.”

Fullback Mike Tolbert summed up as well as anybody how the Panthers feel about the noise.

“It is [loud]," he said. “But at the same time, the crowd is not playing the game."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nobody at Bank of America Stadium has experienced "Beast Mode," which the Carolina Panthers could face in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game at Seattle, more up close and personal than strong safety Roman Harper.

It was second-and-10 in a 2010 NFC wild-card game at Seattle, which slipped into the playoffs with a 7-9 record. Harper was a safety for the New Orleans Saints.

When Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch took the handoff, Harper charged to contain Seattle's left side. Lynch, aka "The Beast," started off left guard, where he appeared stuffed.

And then began a memory that will be ingrained in Harper's mind forever.

"Seeing it unfold slowly but surely, tackle after tackle, stiff-arm here, a little hesitation block. ... I'm like, 'This guy's not down,'" Harper recalled on Monday.

Lynch eventually found himself running down the right sideline with blockers in front. Harper was trailing to Lynch's left, looking for an angle to make a tackle. When Lynch got inside the 10, Harper was confronted by guard Tyler Polumbus.

Harper tried to spin off and make a diving tackle around the 2.

He got nothing but air.

The celebration was so loud that it registered seismic activity.

"The rest is history," Harper said. "It's crazy to look back and see how that's probably one of the greatest runs of all time, especially in playoff history by any player.

"Just saying that I was on the field kind of sucks."

The Panthers haven't really seen "Beast Mode." In three games against Carolina since 2012, Lynch is averaging 63.3 yards. That's less than the decisive 67-yard touchdown in the 41-36 win against New Orleans.

Lynch had only 62 yards on 14 carries when these teams met in October.

So Harper is one of the few at Carolina to truly know what "Beast Mode" -- as well as the loud atmosphere at Seattle -- is like.

"Skittles were flying and the whole nine," Harper said of that game. "What they talk about is what you're going to get. I know some guys have not played out there, but you've got to enjoy that.

"It's something about going to a hostile environment and getting in their crowd and making them silent and having them sitting on their hands and taking over a stadium like that. It's not an easy thing to do."

It's particularly not easy when Lynch is making one of the greatest runs in NFL playoff history.

"It is what it is," said Harper, who made history this past Saturday by helping to hold Arizona to an NFL playoff-low 78 yards of total offense. "I've learned from it.

"It's just part of the thing I have to store in my memory bank when I'm done playing this game and just saying [it's among] some of the things I've been a part of."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested on domestic violence charges in May and then placed on the commissioner’s exempt list in September. Franchise quarterback Cam Newton was involved in a December automobile accident in which he broke two small bones in his lower back.

Then on Monday, coach Ron Rivera was awakened at 4 a fire in his house that took 55 firefighters to get under control.

No team in the NFL can be better prepared this season than the Carolina Panthers on how to handle off-the-field distractions.

The latest occurred as the Panthers (8-8-1) were about to begin preparation for Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game at defending Super Bowl champion Seattle (12-4).

Instead of being at the stadium at 6:30 a.m., Rivera was outside in 40 degree weather as firefighters began removing possessions from his house that weren’t damaged by fire, smoke and water.

Rivera still wasn’t at Bank of America Stadium at12:30 p.m. when he normally would have been to address the media on Seattle.

But players were here, and Rivera made sure they knew his situation wouldn’t be a distraction through a message to secondary coach Steve Wilks.

“It’s business as usual,’’ linebacker Thomas Davis said of the message.

Rivera also took the time on Twitter to send a message to everyone that was concerned about him and his family, who all were unharmed.

Tight end Greg Olsen said Rivera began preaching how to handle off-the-field distractions almost the day he was hired in 2011.

“We’ve said it around here for a long time, the one thing we do a good job with, we do a good job of keeping the focus on the task at hand,’’ Olsen said. “These personal off-the-field things that do come up during the season, coach has set a good example of how to handle that.

“If anybody is prepared for it, it’ll be him.”

But even Olsen admitted this season has been unusual.

And he wasn’t even talking about how a 3-8-1 team won its final four regular-season games to win the NFC South title and then beat Arizona 27-16 in the first round of the playoffs to advance.

“There are stories every year,’’ Olsen said. “Car accident to your starting quarterback. Head coach’s house catches fire. Those are things I don’t think anybody ever [expects] to be in your story.’’

They also aren’t things the Panthers will let be a distraction.

“I know Coach Rivera will be fine,’’ strong safety Roman Harper said. “I know he won’t let it get in his way of what we’re trying to get accomplished.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Respect and leadership show up in all shapes and forms.

On Wednesday, it showed for the Carolina Panthers when a rookie defensive back asked strong safety Roman Harper for permission to go to the bathroom before putting in a little overtime practice for Saturday’s NFC wild-card playoff game against Arizona.

Harper is 32.

Rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere is 23 and rookie free safety Tre Boston is 22. Third-year cornerback Josh Norman is 25.

Harper calls the group that surrounds him in the starting lineup “young and dumb." It’s not an insult; it’s just his way of explaining how they play with controlled, but reckless abandon – not to mention the speed they’ve added -- that has taken Carolina’s secondary to another level.

Apparently, they’re so young and dumb that they feel the need to seek Harper’s permission to go to the restroom during practice.

“You see these young guys looking for him for direction and that is huge," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s been everything we had hoped and advertised in terms of leadership."

Harper signed to a two-year contract with Carolina after being released by NFC South rival New Orleans. After a slow start, he’s come on strong.

He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week on Wednesday after having six tackles and an interception returned 31 yards for a touchdown in Sunday’s 34-3 victory at Atlanta that wrapped up a second straight division title.

Harper also is the lone survivor of the starting secondary since Carolina went with a full youth movement four games ago.

Carolina (7-8-1) is 4-0 since then.

“He’s been a tremendous leader for that group," Rivera said.

And yes, Harper gave the player permission to go to the restroom.

“He did," Rivera said. “But to me, that speaks volumes to what he’s been for us. That to me is thrilling to see as a coach, to see guys following somebody."
PanthersAP Photo/Brynn AndersonA relaxed Cam Newton has meant good things for the Carolina Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Perhaps seeing his 1998 Dodge truck on its side with the roof smashed in was the best thing to happen to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

He learned to better appreciate life. He learned not to take football so seriously. He learned to have fun playing football again.

And when Newton is having fun, the Panthers typically have fun as well.

“He’s probably the only one that can really explain it, but I know when I visited him in the hospital and just listening to him, I felt like he felt this was enlightening,’’ Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday.

“Maybe somewhere along the line he realized he was getting too serious about certain things. ... That’s really helped him to relax and play relaxed. When he’s having fun and he’s relaxed, he’s pretty doggone good.’’

Rivera admitted that has a trickle-down effect. That may explain why there was no sense of panic in the Cleveland game the Panthers rallied to win and in the Atlanta game they dominated 34-3 to win the division.

“You do see everybody take a breath and relax,’’ Rivera said.

Perhaps that’s why Carolina appears more relaxed heading into Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals than it did last year’s divisional loss against San Francisco.

“He’s a pretty open guy who likes to have a good time and is pretty loose,’’ strong safety Roman Harper said. “When you have your quarterback who likes to be that way it kind of trickles down.’’

Harper wasn’t a big Newton fan prior to this season when he was with the New Orleans Saints. Besides being a former Alabama player and Newton from rival Auburn, Harper saw arrogance in the quarterback that hid underneath a Gatorade towel and did Superman moves after scoring touchdowns.

“Of course, I hated the guy,’’ Harper said.

But being around Newton he’s changed his opinion.

“I love when he’s out there pointing first down, he’s having a swag about him and he’s got the glow going and he’s having a good time,’’ Harper said. “And when he’s having a good time we play well, and we’re successful when we’re having a good time.’’

Newton wasn’t having a good time during a seven-game winless streak, and it wasn’t just because of the losing.

“You go back and you’ll see it, pressing and trying to make plays,’’ Rivera said.

Newton actually had a good time in a 41-10 victory over New Orleans two days before the Dec. 9 wreck in which he suffered two small fractures in his lower back.

But as Rivera noted, the “accident, I think there is something in there.’’

Newton now is playing at arguably the highest level of his career. His quarterback rating for the month of December is 87.3, second only to Dallas’ Tony Romo at 92.9.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton entered the month with a rating of 51.2 that ranked 24th in the NFL.

The first pick of the 2011 draft has thrown five touchdown passes to only one interception during the month. He had 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in his previous eight games in which he set a franchise record with at least on interception in each game.

A big reason for the improvement is Newton has been sacked less on play-action passes. He was sacked 13 times on such plays in 2013 to drop his total QBR to 55.5.

He’s been sacked only five times on play-action passes this season, and only twice total in December after being sacked 15 times in three November losses.

Newton’s ability to avoid sacks will be key against an Arizona defense that sacked him 11 times the last two times these teams met. Seven of those came in a 22-6 loss last season in which Newton threw three interceptions and no touchdowns.

His ability to run also will be key. Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, mobile quarterbacks like Newton, rushed for 278 yards in four games against Arizona this season.

“At the end of the day, for us to be successful, he has to show up,’’ Harper said. “He has to continue at the caliber or level that he can. When he does, he gives [us] a real good chance to win.’’

But does Newton need a playoff win to elevate to the next level?

“Next question,’’ he said when asked.

OK, that’s a given. Newton would admit that. It’s also a given something has changed in the quarterback since the car crash.

He’s definitely having more fun.

“Of course, we’re still playing football,’’ Newton said, barely cracking a smile. “That’s something to smile about and be thankful for.’’
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons:
  • Stewart
    Fullback Mike Tolbert was playing the role of reporter for the team television network and interviewing running back Jonathan Stewart, who summed up what many in the locker room felt after Carolina (7-8-1) wrapped up its second consecutive division title. "We repeated as NFC South champions," Stewart said. "But we aren't going to repeat what we did last year." In case you forgot, the Panthers lost a home divisional playoff game to San Francisco.
  • Tolbert, linebacker Thomas Davis and Stewart -- and perhaps a few others -- were dancing and singing "CoCo." The O.T. Genasis song about cocaine was banned by the NBA's Golden State Warriors earlier this month, when the team sang it after wins. The Panthers seemed to have fun with it, though. Said Tolbert, "It's just a song a lot of guys on the team like."
  • Davis
    As strong safety Roman Harper shared how rookie safety Tre Boston predicted on the bus ride to the Georgia Dome that the Panthers would return two interceptions for touchdowns -- a feat that had never been done in team history -- Davis interjected, "Should have been three." Harper returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown in the first half, and Boston returned one 84 yards for a score in the second half. Davis had one called back because of a late flag for contact before the ball arrived. He agreed the official got the call right but hated that it cost him a touchdown.
  • Cornerback Josh Norman was on a roll, talking about all the naysayers, particularly television analysts, who gave up on the Panthers when they were 3-8-1. Said Norman, "You can't put no crown on top of their heads. They don't know."
  • Quarterback Cam Newton was relatively reserved about the victory, but it brought a big smile to his face when he was asked about giving team owner Jerry Richardson consecutive trips to the playoffs for the first time in the team's 20-year history. "For a man that is a great person, a great human being, and runs a top-notch organization, what better way [to show our appreciation] than to give him this type of win today," Newton said.
  • Coach Ron Rivera, when asked if he believed the Panthers would be here last month when the team had only three wins: "Yes, I believe it. I believed in those guys. ... I just felt if we kept playing and kept taking care of our business, we would get that opportunity."

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

December, 28, 2014

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The Panthers (7-8-1) may have a losing record in the worst division in the NFL, but they enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NFC with four straight wins. They also have become a complete team. Sure, none of the teams they beat down the stretch made the playoffs. But the defense that has been playing at a top-10 level the past nine games looked on Sunday like the unit that once ranked second in the NFL. It had six sacks and returned two interceptions for a touchdown. A third was negated by a penalty. It all starts with stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, and the Panthers are doing both now. The offense has found a balance with one of the top running games in the league the last five games and quarterback Cam Newton is starting to perform at a high level. Except for a few rough spots on covering kicks, the Panthers have put everything together at the right time.

Stock watch: Newton has been impressive in managing the offense down the stretch. He was at his best in the first half, rushing six times for 51 yards and a touchdown and completing 8 of 12 pass attempts for 87 yards and a touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 104.7 even though he threw only 16 times.

Speed kills: Since undrafted rookie Philly Brown has given the Panthers more speed at wide receiver, the offense has been more efficient in keeping opponents off balance. Brown had a 28-yard catch and a reverse in the first half. He added a 13-yard reverse in the third quarter.

Wild card: Strong safety Roman Harper had his second interception return for a touchdown this season, taking a Matt Ryan first-half pass back 31 yards to make it 17-3. Harper's play and leadership the second half have been key for a secondary that has been completely revamped, with him being the only starter left from Week 1. Among those added to the mix was rookie Tre Boston, who returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.

Game ball: It would be easy to give the season game ball to Newton for everything he has gone through this season, in terms of rebounding from injuries and enjoying a hot finish. But tight end Greg Olsen has been the most consistent player on an inconsistent team. He led the Panthers in catches with 84 for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns. He personified what this team wanted to be all season.

What's next: The Panthers face the Arizona Cardinals in a NFC wild card at Bank of America Stadium next weekend.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman was his usual engaging and entertaining self Wednesday until the subject of Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel came up.

"Coach told me not to talk about him," said Norman, referring to head coach Ron Rivera. "I'm not going to say anything about him."

Norman didn't budge from that stance no matter how many different ways he was asked about Johnny Football, set to make his second start in Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium.

"Well, Coach told me not to talk about him, so I'm not going to talk about him," he said. "Because if I talk about him there's going to be a problem."

Asked if he was the only person told that, Norman laughed and said, "I got pulled aside, so I'm not going to give anything away."

Call it a pre-emptive strike.

While Rivera said he told the entire team not to get caught up in Johnny Football mania, he knows his locker room. He knows if any member of the defense might be tempted to taunt Manziel like the Cincinnati Bengals did repeatedly Sunday with the quarterback's signature money sign, it would be his shutdown cornerback.

Norman plays with passion and a great deal of emotion. Sometimes it gets him in trouble. He drew a 15-yard taunting penalty late in the first half against Minnesota three weeks ago for jawing with wide receiver Charles Johnson.

The NFL fined him $8,268 two weeks prior to that for his role in a fight against the Atlanta Falcons.

That passion and emotion have also been good to a Carolina defense that needed fire. Norman also made the unit stronger with his ability to shut down the top receiver from the opposing team. Rivera simply wants Norman to stay focused on his job of shutting down wide receiver Josh Gordon as the Panthers (5-8-1) try to stay alive for the NFC South title.

"It's all about interpretation," Rivera said of his message to Norman and the team. "My stress and the point that I stressed is, let's talk about what they do as opposed to who does it. So let's be smart about it and let's be smart about our communication to you guys about what we're going to try to do."

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCoach Ron Rivera wants his Panthers to focus on stopping Johnny Manziel rather than taunting him.
In other words, no taunting penalty as Cincinnati's Rey Maualuga received for getting in Manziel's face with the money sign.

"That's the message more so than anything else, is understanding that, 'Hey, Johnny Football gets out there. Johnny Manziel is going to play the way he does. Go back and look at what we wrote down about him from our college stuff. Explosive playmaker,'" Rivera said.

"That's who he is. He's got potential to be explosive. He's got potential to make plays. We don't want to get into all the other stuff."

Rivera understands Manziel had a rough debut against the Bengals, throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns for a passer rating of 27.3. He also remembers the playmaker out of Texas A&M he studied prior to the draft.

"As you watch him, he's always been an exciting young man to watch play," Rivera said.

Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson is focused on that. It wouldn't matter to him if Manziel was a choirboy instead of the flamboyant personality he is.

"I'm still going to try to hit him," Johnson said.

Johnson doesn't have any money signs tucked away for a special moment. Neither does rookie defensive end Kony Ealy, who while at Missouri faced Manziel twice in college.

"I have my own thing I do," Ealy said. "That's called tackling and hitting and sacking him, and getting back up and doing it again."

Carolina strong safety Roman Harper actually is a fan of Manziel's.

"I don't have nothing to do with the money sign," he said. "I like it. I thought it was funny."

Harper, by the way, wasn't pulled aside and instructed not to talk about Johnny Football.

That brings us back to Norman when asked one last time about his impressions of Manziel.

"I'm excited to go up against the Cleveland Browns," he said.

Give Norman credit, he's on the money with his message.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Roman Harper put his arm around one of his young defensive backfield mates as he does on almost a daily basis and offered some sound veteran advice.

"You might want to think about taking that apron off," the Carolina Panthers strong safety said with a smile.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsRoman Harper leads Carolina in interceptions, but the Panthers say he's been just as valuable off the field.
OK, so this won’t help the Panthers beat the Cleveland Browns this Sunday and stay alive for the NFC South title.

Harper was just making sure the player didn’t leave his Monday night charity event for children in need, an event in which more than a dozen teammates such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin worked as waiters, looking like the hired help.

Harper, 32, loves being the senior citizen of Carolina’s revamped secondary. With two rookies (cornerback Bene' Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston) and a third-year cornerback (Josh Norman) starting around him, he likens himself to Bill Russell when the NBA Hall of Famer was a player-coach for the Boston Celtics in the late 1960s.

Harper even has Russell’s familiar peppered-gray hair that makes him look older than he is.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he wished he had a player like Harper, signed in March as a free agent from New Orleans, four years ago.

"You watch him put his arm around the young safeties and say things to them about how to do things," Rivera said. "It’s been great to watch veteran leadership."

Harper is the only member of the secondary left that started in Week 1. He’s played his best football of the season -- maybe the past two or three -- the last month. He had his 17th-career sack, the most by a defensive back since he joined the league in 2006, in Sunday’s 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay. He has a team-best three interceptions.

He has helped turn a secondary that at midseason was one of the weakest positions into a strength, a big reason the Panthers have won two straight.

But Harper’s value goes beyond what he does on the field. It’s his willingness to share his experiences and knowledge, in life as well as football.

"[Rivera] probably didn’t want me four years ago," Harper said. "I probably was a little more selfish as a player. Now I try to be completely selfless. I try to do whatever is best for this team.

"I look at Tre, I look at Bene'. They don’t know what they’re doing half the time. They’re just going out playing ball. What I’m here for is help show this team how to win and be a professional."

Harper does it in a way that isn’t intimidating.

"He’s not going to be a parent to you, over-coach you, but he’s always there when you need him," Benwikere said. "He’s always there to answer any question you need, to show you the ropes.

"He definitely talked to me about experiences he’s been through. It’s been a nice ride just learning from him."

Boston leaned on Harper for advice often during offseason workouts when a sports hernia kept him from participating.

"Roman has meant the world to me," he said. "It’s kind of hard to say the world when you have family, but in this football world Roman has really helped me to become a man, understand the game and life."

This season has been a learning experience for Harper as well. He feels more like the player that made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010 than the one that played in only nine games and started only five last season with the Saints.

"I look at myself on tape, I look fresh, I look young, I look rejuvenated compared to how I was a player the past few years,’’ Harper said. "I really like who I am as a player right now

"I’m playing smart, very instinctive, still flying around making plays."

He’s also offering advice, from football to fashion faux pas.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Perhaps it was a sign things are starting to turn in favor of the Carolina Panthers.

Coach Ron Rivera had won only three of 16 career replay challenges heading into Sunday’s 19-17 victory the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He appeared set to lose another when he challenged what appeared to be an apparent incomplete pass by Josh McCown early in the fourth quarter.

Instead, the officials reversed the call and ruled that McCown lost the ball before his arm began coming forward, and that the quarterback basically batted the ball downfield about 20 yards.

The Panthers (5-8-1) didn’t get the return for a touchdown that strong safety Roman Harper lobbied for after forcing the fumble that cornerback Bené Benwikere recovered.

But they did get the ball at the Tampa Bay 27, and it led to a 45-yard field goal that gave them what turned out to be a much-needed 19-10 cushion.

Rivera didn’t take credit for throwing the red flag that for the most part since 2011 would have gotten better use dusting furniture. That all went to “the guys upstairs.”

“They kept yelling ‘empty hand, empty hand,’" Rivera said of his assistant coaches in the booth. “So that meant one of our guys knocked it loose, and when his hand moved forward, he had nothing in there except hitting the ball with his hand, knocking it forward.”

Harper never had a doubt Carolina would win the challenge.

“I didn’t have to lobby,” he said, reminding the replay on the big screen supported his argument. “I knew what happened and I was just trying to be emphatic about picking the ball up and just make sure we take advantage of the little things, the opportunities we do have.”

The turnover occurred in large part because defensive coordinator Sean McDermott picked up the pressure with timely blitz packages in the second half.

McCown was an efficient 6-of-10 passing for 68 yards and a touchdown in the first half. He had a passer rating of 113.8.

He was 7-of-18 for 96 yards in the second half. He was sacked twice and finished with a passer rating of 60.7.

Arguably the biggest play of the game came on the third play of the second half, when defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison teamed to sack McCown, who fumbled and gave Carolina possession at the Tampa Bay 4.

Two plays later, Jerricho Cotchery caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Derek Anderson to make it 16-10.

“We did some nice things on the defensive side,” Rivera said. “Some of the pressures Sean McDermott used in terms of coverage that [secondary coach] Steve Wilks and Sean and those guys talked about were excellent.

“We gave ourselves opportunities by playing the way we did on the defensive side.”

The pressure also led to an interception by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly with 14 seconds left and the outcome still in doubt. It continued a seven-game trend in which the defense played well.

“I finally got one,” Kuechly said of his interception. “I’ve been trying to run around and get one for a while.”

Rivera could say the same thing about challenges.
NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints have lost their home mystique in stunning fashion.

Their 41-10 drubbing by the Carolina Panthers on Sunday was their most lopsided home loss since 2003. And they’ve now lost four straight games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time during a single season since 1999.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
AP Photo/Bill HaberSean Payton has watched the Saints lose four straight at home for the first time in 15 seasons.
This from a team that had won 20 straight home games with Sean Payton as coach, including the playoffs, before the streak started.

Up until a month ago -- when the Saints routed the Green Bay Packers in this building -- the idea was that the Saints had one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. Now nothing could be further from the truth.

But as Payton explained, it has nothing to do with the venue and everything to do with the team.

“Let’s be clear on this, because I think it’s a fair question,” Payton said. “It’s happened on the road and at home. And it probably has nothing to do with the building, the bricks, the venue. It probably has a lot more to do with … you’re staring at. You could be in Atlanta, you could be here, you could be in Cleveland.

"'Cuz the season started off the with the idea being, 'Hey, can they play well on the road?' That was half of the year. And so my point is it probably has nothing to do with the venue. We play like that, it doesn't matter where we play. Downtown, uptown, across the lake at Mandeville High School or at another NFL venue. You play like that, it doesn't matter really.

“And that’s the unfortunate thing, because you’d like to take advantage of our home crowd. We’ve had great support, and yet we don’t even give them a chance because it’s, shoot, two scores or three scores before they even sat down.”

Instead, the sound of boos cascading through the crowd has become commonplace.

The Saints have been booed on their way into the locker room at halftime during three of their past four home games. The boos were relentless throughout the game Sunday.

At one point, a fan threw a beer onto the field, which inspired the PA announcer to remind fans about the code of conduct. Then the PA announcer got booed, too.

After the game, Saints players such as Curtis Lofton and Zach Strief specifically apologized to the fans.

“I don’t blame any fan for being disappointed not only [for] this game, but [for] this season,” offensive tackle Strief told The Advocate. “I do not blame them for that whatsoever. We have to come and play; we have to come and give them a reason to cheer; we have to give them a reason not to boo. End of story.”

Worse than losing the fans, though, is that the Saints are putting no fear into their opponents and no pressure on them to make mistakes in a hostile venue.

ESPN analyst Steve Young said after their previous home loss to the Baltimore Ravens on "Monday Night Football" last month that “the whole league” used to know that no matter how the Saints were playing, they could come home and “get healthy, things could get right.”

“Now that’s all gone. You have nothing left,” Young added.

No one appreciated that more Sunday than Panthers safety Roman Harper, who spent his first eight seasons in New Orleans.

"We did a great job of making them boo by halftime, which is always a great thing when you're the visiting team,” said Harper, who said he had never seen anybody throw a beer from the top row -- and that he knows the fans are better than that.

But, Harper added, “To go on the road in a tough environment and win the way we did, as a fan I would be kind of frustrated, too. And it's not like they're sober.”
NEW ORLEANS -- Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman couldn’t help himself as he mocked the taunts of the few New Orleans Saints fans remaining in the Superdome on Sunday.

"Who dat? Who dat?" Norman yelled as he entered the stadium tunnel after Carolina's 41-10 victory.

Who dat, indeed.

The Panthers (4-8-1) certainly didn’t look like the team that hadn’t won in two months.

They started fast, scoring a touchdown on the opening drive for only the second time this season and the first since an October tie at Cincinnati. They had 24 points at halftime after scoring only 25 in the first half of the last six games combined.

They dominated on defense, holding the Saints to 110 yards for the first three quarters and forcing turnovers on two of New Orleans' first three plays.

Quarterback Cam Newton looked like Drew Brees, compiling a season-best passer rating of 114.0. Brees looked like Newton had during Carolina's six-game losing streak, finishing with a rating of 69.7.

The Panthers looked like -- dare I say? -- a playoff team.

Keep in mind the Saints aren't very good defensively. They are 5-8 for a reason.

But the Panthers, at least for a day, looked like the team that went 12-4 and won the NFC South a year ago. They looked like a team that could make a playoff run.

As crazy as it sounds, if Atlanta (5-7) loses at Green Bay on Monday night as most predict will happen, the Panthers will be only a half-game back with three to play.

They still need help. They need Atlanta to lose to the Packers and then beat New Orleans here on Dec. 21 for a realistic chance.

Oh, and they also have to beat Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta for that to mean anything.

But Sunday's win at least offered them a glimmer of hope.

"Somebody keeps throwing us a gift," Norman said. "We've just got to accept it."

For a team that hadn't won since Oct 5, the Panthers were relatively subdued. Newton wouldn't even address whether they could win out.

"Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa," he said. "That's looking way too far [ahead] for me. And I think that's what got us in the position we are in now."

Asked to elaborate, Newton said his comment had more to do with not focusing on every play and every detail of every game than looking ahead on the schedule.

The Panthers had every detail covered on their opening drive. Newton went 5-of-5 for 56 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown to rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Newton also rushed twice for 24 yards as Carolina opened in no-huddle to get its quarterback in a rhythm.

It was as perfectly scripted as any opening series -- perhaps any series -- as Carolina has had all season.

Newton didn't let up. He didn't have an interception after having at least one in eight straight games. He helped Carolina to 497 total yards, the third most in team history. He had 83 yards on 12 carries as Carolina amassed 271 yards on the ground, also the third most in team history.

Newton was so efficient that Saints fans cheered once when he was slow to get up, believing he might be hurt.

The defense had the home team booing Brees & Co. One fan threw a container onto the field, something Carolina strong safety Roman Harper never saw during his previous eight seasons as a member of the Saints.

Harper also can't remember a time when Brees struggled so much. The future Hall of Famer had a passer rating of 35.4 threw three quarters.

"For three quarters we had them locked up," Harper said.

This was as complete of a game as Carolina has had this season, and perhaps a glimpse of what it is capable of.

"We can build on this," Harper said. "Now this team is going to be confident."

The Panthers need more than confidence. They need three more wins and a little luck to extend the season.

And the one thing that has defined them more than anything has been their lack of consistency. Only a week ago tight end Greg Olsen said, "Right now, we're not very good."

He amended that on Sunday, saying, "This is who we are, and this is what we're good at."

But until the Panthers do it again and again and again, nobody really knows "who dat" team is.
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 41-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints:
  • Winning for the first time in two months gave the Panthers something to smile about. But nobody was bubbly, understanding there's still work to do if Carolina has any chance of winning out and repeating as NFC South champion. When quarterback Cam Newton was asked if the Panthers (4-8-1) could win their remaining three games, he said, "Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. That's looking way too far [ahead] for me. And I think it's what got us in this position we are in now."
  • Norman
    Cornerback Josh Norman to the Saints fans as he was running off the field, "Who dat? Who dat?"
  • A fan yelled "You didn't do anything today!" to left tackle Byron Bell as he was walked off the field. Bell smiled, turned and pointed to the scoreboard. He never said a word.
  • Strong safety Roman Harper, who played his entire career with New Orleans before signing with Carolina during the offseason, said he'd never seen a fan throw a can from the top row at the Superdome until early in the second half when the public address announcer had to remind the crowd to remember the code of conduct. "Where are we, the WWE?" Harper asked.
  • Backup tight end Brandon Williams on being ejected for throwing punches during a brawl in the end zone after Newton's 2-yard touchdown run made it 17-0: "I saw them going after Cam. I just went in to break it up." Williams didn't feel he should have been thrown out of the game, saying he didn't do anything that others weren't.
  • Linebacker Thomas Davis said it was "disgraceful" that the New Orleans fans cheered when Newton appeared hurt one of his 12 runs. "There's no place for that," Davis said.
  • Last week, tight end Greg Olsen said "right now, we're not very good" after a 31-13 loss to Minnesota. On Sunday he said, "This is who we are."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Safety Roman Harper said his fast start with his new team, the Carolina Panthers, had “nothing to do with” trying to prove the New Orleans Saints wrong for letting him go.

But Harper, 31, admitted that he’s felt rejuvenated by being the "good-looking girl you see walking across the street" instead of the "old girlfriend."

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsAfter eight seasons in New Orleans, Roman Harper will be facing his former team for the first time.
“My biggest thing is it’s just a different thing. It’s a different vibe, a different system. You’re learning all over again. You’re really focusing on the little things and the little details where before you felt like you knew it all because you’ve been in the same system for so long,” said Harper, who spent eight years with the Saints after being drafted in the second round out of Alabama in 2006. “Not only that, even the players and coaches, it’s all fresh. You’re a new face. You’re no longer stale to them. You’re not like the old girlfriend. You’re like the good-looking girl you see walking across the street. That’s what it’s about right now, and I’m excited to be here. It’s been great. It’s been very good.”

Harper, who will face his former team for the first time tonight in Carolina, won a Super Bowl ring and earned two Pro Bowl invites with the Saints, having his best years as an attacking blitzer under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-11.

But Harper said he saw the writing on the wall when the Saints drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round last year.

“They drafted Kenny in the first round and they want to see him play. I think at the end of the day that’s kind of what it was. I never really felt like he beat me out or anything like that,” said Harper, whose cause wasn’t helped by the fact that he missed seven games with a knee injury last year and was due $3.15 million this year. “It’s the business. They want to see these guys play. They want to see their guys have success. There are no hard feelings, it’s just part of it. I was ready to move on and they were too.”

Harper’s former teammates raved this week about what a good person he was -- including the “band of brothers” that have been together since the Millsaps training camp days of 2006, as Drew Brees recalled, and including the younger players who have come since. Vaccaro, running back Mark Ingram (a fellow Alabama product) and tight end Jimmy Graham (a longtime practice matchup) all described him as a valued mentor.

Vaccaro, in fact, made a point to say to the New Orleans Advocate that Harper was much more welcoming to him than fellow former veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins was in that awkward relationship between veteran and newcomers fighting for snaps.

“It was a relief to be replacing someone like Roman,” Vaccaro told The Advocate. “It’s always tougher when they’re not helping you -- there’s tension, you feel awkward all the time. ... He was real selfless.”

That selflessness will be replaced by competing goals tonight, when Ingram said he’ll gladly lower a shoulder into his friend and Graham said he’ll try to make sure Harper’s personal scouting reports are obsolete.

Harper, who has continued to play primarily as an in-the-box safety who will cover tight ends on occasion, intercepted three passes in the Panthers’ first six games. That was a stunner for those who followed Harper in New Orleans, since interceptions were always admittedly his biggest shortcoming (he had seven in eight years).

Harper has battled inconsistency, though, along with a Panthers defense that ranks 29th in the NFL in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Harper said he doesn’t think reuniting with the Saints will feel “really weird” until he returns to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome later this season. For now, it will just be friendly handshakes and a business meeting.

Saints coach Sean Payton usually downplays meetings with former players or coaches since he says they’re so commonplace on a weekly basis. But in this case, he stressed that Harper was “one of the centerpieces” of the Saints’ rise that began in ’06.

“We were just talking in the walk-through [Tuesday], there’s a play where we have [Marques] Colston possibly blocking Harper, running behind Zach [Strief] and Jahri [Evans]. There’s a lot of ’06 draft class in that pile,” Payton said. “He’s a great guy, has been a great player and been a part of all the things that we built. And you miss seeing his parents, who come to every game. So I’m happy for him and really excited to see he’s doing well.”

W2W4: Carolina Panthers

August, 28, 2014
The Carolina Panthers (1-2) face the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.

Here are three things to watch for:

1. Consistency: The Panthers have been consistent on offense or defense through the first three preseason games. They've started slowly on both sides. They've been unable to sustain a running game, gaining only 55 yards on 16 carries from DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Not what you want when you're a ball-control team. They've struggled at times to stop the run. Not what you'd expect from the league's second-best defense in 2013. They've allowed 10 sacks and collected only five. Not what you expect from the team that led the league in sacks last season with 60. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh, has one catch for 8 yards. Not what you want when you're replacing the veteran leadership of Steve Smith. It might be asking too much for a significant change with the starters likely not playing more than a quarter, and with quarterback Cam Newton being held out with a fractured rib. But a little bit of consistency would be a good place to end the preseason.

2. Communication: Roman Harper is getting his first start at strong safety after missing the first three preseason games with turf toe. He was signed as a free agent from New Orleans to be a leader in this rebuilt secondary and provide an attitude this group has been lacking. There have been breakdowns in communication during the first three games, resulting in big plays for the opposition that have contributed to the slow starts. With starting defensive ends Greg Hardy (shoulder) and Charles Johnson (hamstring) out, the secondary needs to set the tone for a change.

3. Blocking: The offensive line has allowed too many sacks and opened up too few holes. Injuries to the right side of the line have played a small role. Rookie right guard Trai Turner (groin) is expected to be out for the second straight game, but right tackle Nate Chandler (knee) is back. Chandler lost the left tackle battle to Byron Bell, who still has issues with the bull rush. If he doesn't pick up the pace he may lose the right tackle job to Garry Williams. The Panthers believe in winning from the inside out. The defensive front is solid. The offensive front needs to start setting the tone on the other side before it faces a tough Tampa Bay defense in the Sept. 7 opener. As I've said throughout the offseason, the success of the rebuilt line is the key to the success of this team.