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Rivera fighting to keep 0-2 Panthers' positive

The SportsXchange

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For the first time since he's been in Charlotte, Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton walked into his required time with the local media and made an opening statement full of confidence and hope.

"There's a lot of encouragement in this locker room right now. There's nobody that's lingering on any losses or down about any particular thing, and that's what I want to see as a player and one of the leaders on this team," Newton said after the Panthers practiced for Sunday's home game against the Giants.

Later, at the same podium, head coach Ron Rivera wrapped up his media availability with beads of sweat dotting his forehead, sounding about as downtrodden as he has since he became the team's head coach.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I expect to be where we are right now," Rivera said. "We had opportunities to win both games, I expected to win both of them, and it didn't work that way."

After starting the season with two losses in games they led in the fourth quarter, the difference between the young quarterback and embattled coach was striking. The former is still the future of the franchise. The latter may not be with the team as soon as next week.

Rivera earned a third season with the Panthers after a strong finish in 2012, but he still needed a postseason meeting with Jerry Richardson to convince the owner he deserved another year. A loss Sunday would drop the Panthers to 0-3 heading into the bye week, and Richardson may decide that could be a good time to make a change.

As if another slow start wasn't enough to put Rivera in a precarious situation, he now has to somehow get a badly banged-up secondary ready to face a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Eli Manning has struggled, leading the league with seven interceptions in his first two games, but Carolina's defensive backfield could give him a very good chance to get back on track.

Five defensive backs were on Wednesday's injury report, which didn't include Charles Godfrey, the Panthers' starting free safety who was put on the IR Tuesday with a torn Achilles tendon.

Cornerback D.J. Moore ruled himself out of Sunday's game with an MCL strain, cornerback Josh Thomas vowed to play despite suffering a concussion in Week 2, cornerback Josh Norman sat out with thigh and knee injuries, cornerback James Dockery was limited coming off thumb surgery, and safety Quintin Mikell missed practice with a sprained ankle.

The only healthy defensive backs on the roster this week are safety Mike Mitchell, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, undrafted rookie Melvin White, and De'Andre Presley and Greg Gatson, who were each signed to the practice squad on Wednesday.

So the Panthers' starting secondary could look like this Sunday: Munnerlyn in his regular starting cornerback spot, Thomas at the other corner, Mitchell - who lost his starting strong safety job to Mikell - at free safety, and undrafted rookie Lester - who again, was just signed off the practice squad - at strong safety.

Despite the obvious mess, Mitchell claimed Wednesday, "If you're sleeping on our secondary, you'll get a rude awakening."

While confidence is nice, and it's unlikely Mitchell would admit the Panthers' secondary is in awful shape, it's hard not to imagine Manning and the Giants - who rank second in the league in pass offense - not targeting Carolina's most-depleted unit.

Despite it all, Rivera has to figure out a way to win or risk losing his job much sooner than anyone would have anticipated this year. And while the effects of Carolina's first two losses were evident on his face and in his tone Wednesday, the former Bears' linebacker isn't going down without one final push.

"I've got to be upbeat for 61 players and for 20 coaches. For me to bury my head in the sand is not going to get it done," Rivera said. "My approach is there's another week, another opportunity. We'll go out there and give it our best and we expect to win."
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