Panthers Could Sneak Back Into NFC South Race

Coming off last Sunday’s final-drive win over the Houston Texans at Bank of America Stadium, the Carolina Panthers enjoyed something they had yet to experience during the Frank Reich era: A winning post-game meal.

The Panthers’ first-year coach said Friday the delayed victory proved delectable.

“The dynamic is a little different when you get that taste,” Reich said, as reported by “You want that again and again. That’s what we all shoot for in this league. There’s nothing like walking into that locker room after a hard-fought win.

“You can use that as fuel for motivation and I think we are.”

After dropping their first six games, the Panthers were the last NFL team to earn a win. Now, with the Indianapolis Colts visiting Sunday before traveling to face the struggling Chicago Bears on Thursday, the Panthers have a chance to improve to 3-6 over the next six days. The Colts (3-5) have dropped three in a row and the Bears (2-6) are in last place in the NFC North.

Considering the Atlanta Falcons, who benched their starting quarterback Desmond Ridder in favor of Taylor Heinicke, and New Orleans Saints lead the weak NFC South at 4-4, the Panthers, believe it or not, could soon find themselves in a pennant chase.

First things first, however, the Panthers need to take care of business against the Colts, which means they will need to find answers at running back and linebacker.

RB Rotation Begins With Chuba Hubbard

With top free-agent signee running back Miles Sanders failing to live up to his 4-year, $25 million contract and falling on the depth chart, backup Chuba Hubbard has assumed the lead-back role.

“Chuba’s getting the bulk of our carries right now with the way our run game is going,” Reich said. “He’s a more physical, downhill runner, but Miles is a great player so we want to continue to mix it up.”

The Panthers, who average 90.3 rushing yards per game, rank 25th in the NFL. In the win over the Texans, the Panthers compiled just 44 yards on 24 attempts, an average of 1.8 yards per rush.

But, on the final possession, Hubbard gained 25 total yards to position placekicker Eddie Pineiro for his game-winning field goal.

To help the Panthers rise from their near-disastrous start, Reich remains confident Sanders and Hubbard will supply a solid 1-2 punch.

“I have a lot of confidence in Miles,” Reich said. “Sometimes at running back, I’ve seen this happen before. Somebody gets the hot hand like Chubs has a hot hand a little bit and the game flow goes a certain way for a few games. We’ve got a lot of football left. Have a lot of faith and confidence in Miles. Again, I’d go back to say some of the start of the season was just how unproductive our offense was early on in general. It wasn’t Miles. We were pretty unproductive. I think it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. I hope to see Miles get back to being more involved and it being an even rotation.

“We love Chuba.”

Newcomer Luiji Vilain, Rookie DJ Johnson Rounding out LB Rotation

The Panthers’ depth at linebacker took a hit with Yetur Gross-Matos landing on injured reserve and James Houston listed as out for the Colts.

Already without Shaq Thompson (ankle) for the season, the Panthers’ linebacker rotation could be filled out by newcomer Luiji Vilain and rookie DJ Johnson, a third-round draft pick last April who has been moving up the depth chart the past month.

The Panthers may have lost a lot of their positional experience and leadership, but plans to rely on the athleticism of the two younger players.

“I think we’re ready,” Reich said. “I think the guys are stepping up. Luiji (Vilain) has had a good week. DJ (Johnson) has been doing a good job. I feel those outside linebackers will be ready to go.”

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