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Scuffling Panthers look to regain form vs. Chargers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For a team in danger of missing the playoffs and mired in another two-game losing skid, the Carolina Panthers would seem to have enough on their plate heading into what looks like a must-win stretch.

The distractions, however, have been plenty for the Panthers as they prepare for a home game Sunday afternoon with the San Diego Chargers.

Not only is Carolina coming off Sunday night's 40-7 throttling from the Seattle Seahawks, but they're dealing with the fallout from the benching of quarterback Cam Newton at the start of the game because of a violation of the team's dress code.

Newton wasn't much of a help when he got into the game.

The Chargers have their own issues, losing two of their last three games as they've been unable to climb into legitimate playoff contention.

San Diego (5-7) and Carolina (4-8) are last-place teams in their respective divisions.

While physical ailments have been part of the storyline for the Panthers, the shortcomings might extend beyond that. The mental psyche of the team is at the core of recent discussions.

"You are concerned about them. You are concerned about the mental health of the team," coach Ron Rivera said. "It's disappointing because expectations were hot. ... I feel very fortunate that we have a strong culture inside that locker room."

Speculation has been simmering about Rivera's relationship with Newton after the quarterback, who was the 2015 Most Valuable Player in the league, was held out for the first snap at Seattle because he failed to wear a tie as part of his attire on the team's trip to the game.

Newton didn't appear for a scheduled news conference Wednesday. Rivera said the issue of the dress code has been addressed and he's ready to move on.

"I treat everybody the same," Rivera said. "Everybody gets treated the same."

Chargers coach Mike McCoy is dealing with questions about the team's personnel and his decision-making with his club unable to make much headway. He said it's not fair to paint the entire season with one brush.

"Everyone is different," McCoy said of each game. "Nobody likes to lose. We all understand we have to do our jobs better. It's never just one thing from week to week. It's a different reason for it.

"It's not easy winning in this league. Look at us. One or two plays can change everything."

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was a full participant in Friday's practice but he was not cleared from the NFL concussion protocol and the team ruled him out for Sunday's game.

"This is the situation we're in," Rivera said. "There's no turning around from it. ... You want to be consistent. We've got four games left in the regular season and we're going to play them all one at a time. I think it's a good opportunity to see who we are, to see the character and see what we can build on."

The Chargers are often sparked by quarterback Philip Rivers, who returns to the state where he starred in college for North Carolina State. But Rivers has thrown 14 interceptions, marking the second-highest total in the NFL this season. He has also thrown for 25 touchdowns.

With the microscope on some of the Chargers' missteps, the problems are spread across different areas.

"It's not just the last two minutes of a game," McCoy said. "Sometimes the ball bounces your way, sometimes it doesn't."

The Chargers, too, have been questioned about the team's collective mindset.

"We have a lot of good veteran guys around here who keep you upbeat and keep you going," San Diego tight end Hunter Henry said. "It makes you sick to your stomach knowing what you could have done and what you could have done in all those other games."

Carolina has an 0-3 record this season against AFC West teams, so it will try to prevent a sweep in that regard. San Diego is 1-2 against the NFC South.

Rivera was the Chargers' linebackers coach in 2007 and then became the defensive coordinator the next year during his four seasons on the San Diego staff. Rivers was the quarterback during that time.

McCoy spent nine seasons with the Panthers, serving as receivers coach, quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator.

"I love going back there," McCoy said. "A lot of what I do today, I developed with Carolina. It's a special place."

The teams haven't met since the Panthers won 31-7 on Dec. 16, 2012, in San Diego. Carolina has won four of the five all-time meetings.

Updated December 10, 2016

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