NFL

Panthers look to avoid another major funk after 2-0 start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Ron Rivera is confident the Carolina Panthers are better equipped to capitalize on a fast start than they were last season.

The Panthers are 2-0 again, but keenly aware of how quickly things can fall apart.

It happened in 2014.

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Carolina started with the same record before falling into nearly a three-month funk, winning just one of its next 10 games. The Panthers still found a way to rally, winning their final four games in 2014 to finish 7-8-1 - good enough to repeat as champions in a woeful NFC South.

Rivera doesn't believe this year's team is headed for a similar drought.

''We were also beat up a lot more (last season), we were a younger team - we can look at a lot of other things,'' Rivera said of the 2014 season.

The coach doesn't plan to remind players about last year's midseason drought.

And he doesn't believe there is a point.

Rivera said the focus this week is not on the negative but on playing host to Drew Brees and the winless New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

''They are a good team that is struggling right now. They're 0-2. ... They are going to come in here fired up,'' Rivera said.

Rivera felt so good about Carolina's 24-17 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday he gave the players a rare day off Monday. He called it a great team victory, pointing to big plays in all three phases of the game and the top-notch play of quarterback Cam Newton, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another against the Texans.

Unlike last year, the Panthers are fairly healthy apart from losing wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and defensive end Frank Alexander in the preseason.

They're also deeper at several positions and thus more equipped to handle injuries.

A.J. Klein has stepped in for concussed middle linebacker Luke Kuechly the past six quarters and the Panthers have rallied around him, allowing just 17 points while forcing five turnovers during that span. Klein was responsible for one of those, a key interception in the fourth quarter of Carolina's win Sunday that set up a Newton touchdown pass to Philly Brown.

Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said Klein did a ''phenomenal job'' handling the calls and running the defense.

''I had no issues with him going in because he works really, really hard and he made the plays when we needed him,'' Coleman said.

Still, the Panthers are eager to get Kuechly, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, back on the practice field. Rivera said Kuechly hasn't met with an independent doctor yet, but the hope is he'll be cleared for practice on Wednesday.

It helps that the Panthers also don't have any distractions hanging over their heads.

Last season, they were dealing with if and when star defensive end Greg Hardy would return to the field. Injuries, many of them in the secondary, also forced Carolina to start 11 different players on almost a weekly basis.

After giving up just 21 total points in their first two games in 2014, the Panthers defense fell apart, allowing 27 or more points in seven of the next 10 games.

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said he doesn't want to compare last year's unit to this one.

''I just know I like where we are right now. I like what I saw fundamentally'' McDermott said of Sunday's win.

NOTES: Rivera revealed Monday that wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery has a high right ankle sprain and will be reevaluated later in the week. He was injured on Sunday, but returned to the game for a few plays before leaving again.

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