TAMPA — The Panthers were perfect until last week's loss at Atlanta ended a streak of 18 regular-season wins, the longest in NFC history. At 14-1, they need a win over the Bucs on Sunday or an Arizona loss to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera no longer has to worry about rust versus rest, because the Panthers will play all of their starters.
"That's exactly it. We've got a lot to play for, so we're going to play the guys as needed. We're going to play with every intent of winning the football game," Rivera said Thursday. "That's the truth of the matter. I'm not really as torn as if we had won last week. I most certainly would've been torn."
It has been more than a calendar year since the Panthers have had to respond to a defeat, but Rivera said players have done a good job of putting the loss and the pursuit of perfection behind them.
"I know we took it hard," Rivera said of the 20-13 loss to the Falcons. "Monday was a day we really took it hard. We came back in on Tuesday and we had meetings and the (mood) seemed to be dissipating. (Wednesday), we had a good, spirited practice, which was exciting, and then today the tempo continued. I like to believe these guys have gotten over it. They're focusing on playing Tampa Bay now.
"So far it's been good. It's been a good week of practice. … I feel positive about their attitude about being ready to bounce back. It's been a while and fortunately for us, we have an opportunity to get back on the saddle and get riding again."
However, Rivera was not happy about the Bucs-Panthers game being flexed from its 1 p.m. start to 4:25, the same as the kickoff to the Cardinals-Seahawks game.
"What I don't like about it is it puts people in a peculiar position. You know, we should be playing at 1 and whether we win or lose, that puts the decision now on the head coach in Arizona and he's the one who makes the decision on what he wants to do. Doing what they did to us … there's no more decision. And I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's fair to put coaches and teams in positions like that. Believe me, if it was the other way around, I'd be disappointed."
CONTE TRIES TO FINISH STRONG: The rap on S Chris Conte when he signed as a free agent from the Bears was he couldn't stay healthy. Until he missed last week's game against Chicago with a knee injury, Conte played 14 consecutive games and had 79 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Conte did not practice Thursday but hasn't been ruled out of Sunday's game. "I like what he's done," coach Lovie Smith said. "Chris Conte is a good football player when he's on the football field. For the most part, he's remained out there. We've seen flashes. We've seen signs. It's a shame he couldn't play last week, but we'll see what his availability is moving forward."
INJURIES: DT Da'Quan Bowers was excused from practice for personal reasons. FB Jorvorskie Lane had an illness and did not practice.
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org and listen from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620. View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs. Follow @NFLStroud.