CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn't buying into the idea the season is over.
Rivera believes the Panthers (1-4) are close to turning things around, and that coaches and players need to improve if they're to make a run at the playoffs.
Rivera said the coaching staff spent a portion of the bye weekend self-scouting and acknowledged that coaches need to do a better job of "putting players in good position to make plays" and players need to "step up and make plays."
"It goes hand in hand," Rivera said.
The Panthers (1-4) face an uphill climb the rest of the way after three straight losses. They already trail Atlanta (6-0) by 4½ games in the NFC South.
Players returned to practice Monday after four days off and began preparing for a home game Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys (2-3). Rivera said players practiced with good energy and a sense of purpose.
"I thought mentally they were into (preparing for) this week already and it was a good session," Rivera said.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason, cornerback Chris Gamble and Geoff Hangartner — who'll move to center this week to replace the injured Ryan Kalil — all returned to practice after missing Carolina's 16-12 loss to Seattle before the bye week.
Rivera said the only player who sat out was defensive end Antwan Applewhite.
"Physically they look refreshed," Rivera said.
Rivera said he hasn't decided if Beason will return to the starting middle linebacker spot, where he went to three Pro Bowls, or if the team will keep rookie Luke Kuechly at that position.
Kuechly, the team's first-round draft pick, moved to middle linebacker for the Seattle game and looked extremely comfortable, making 11 tackles and an interception.
That's the position where Kuechly was most comfortable playing at Boston College, twice leading the nation in tackles.
"You've got to see who's doing what and put them in the best position," Rivera said. "We have to evaluate what we do and how things fit."
The Panthers have no room for error.
They desperately need to string together a few wins.
Since 1978 only seven of 156 teams that started 1-4 made the playoffs, according to STATS LLC.
"If we want to do something special, we've got to win now," defensive end Charles Johnson said.
They'll face a Cowboys team that performed well on offense, but lost a close game 31-29 at Baltimore on Sunday after some questionable clock management at the end of regulation.
The Panthers have struggled on offense most of the season, but the biggest concern entering this game might be stopping Dallas' running game.
The Cowboys rolled up 227 yards rushing against Baltimore — the most ever allowed by the traditionally stingy Ravens defense — although starting running back DeMarco Murray injured his ankle in the process.
If Murray can't go, Felix Jones is expected to carry the load.
"It's going to be a good test for us," said Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards: "We're fighting an uphill battle as we speak right now. But it's a must-win for us. We have been close. I think it's just those little things that are going to put us over the edge."
Offensively, the Panthers need to get their running game going, something they haven't done on a consistent basis under second-year quarterback Cam Newton.
"We have a sense of urgency," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "We don't have any more bye weeks. We're here, in this locker room, throughout the rest of the year. So we have to come out now and get a win.
"It's crunch time," he said.
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