- Associated Press - Saturday, November 7, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Ron Rivera regularly downplays the significance of his team’s next game, subscribing to the notion that “the next game is the biggest game.”

But even Carolina’s fifth-year head coach admits this Sunday’s matchup with the Green Bay Packers looms a little larger than most.

The Panthers (7-0) are the lone unbeaten team in the NFC, followed closely by the one-loss Packers. A win not only gives the Panthers a two-game lead over the rest of the conference, but would also afford them the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Packers when it comes to determining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

“This game is important and it could have implications as we get into January, and we’ll be aware of it,” Rivera said.

You don’t have to tell that to Aaron Rodgers, coming off one of his worst games as a professional, held to 77 yards passing and no touchdowns in a 29-10 loss to the Denver Broncos last Sunday at Lambeau Field.

“It has potential implications down the road,” Rodgers said. “We both have goals bigger than this game, but this could go a long way when the weather starts to change.”

As Carolina Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen said, the Panthers would much rather play in temperate Charlotte in the playoffs than in frigid Green Bay. The Panthers have won six straight games at home.

Carolina won’t have the luxury of preparing for the Packers coming off a bye week as Denver did. In fact, the Panthers are coming off a short week, having played an overtime game Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts.

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said he’s gleaned as much as possible from what the Broncos did to slow down Rodgers, and said he’ll borrow some ideas from that. But he added that personnel-wise the Panthers are much different and they’ll mostly stick to what they normally do on defense.

Also worth watching:

THE BLOWOUT: Rodgers and the Packers dismantled Carolina 38-17 last year at Lambeau Field, with the four-time Pro Bowl quarterback completing 19 of 22 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. But Rodgers, a two-time league MVP, will face a much different secondary this time, including CB Josh Norman, who didn’t play in the last meeting. Norman has developed into a shutdown cornerback for the Panthers.

“He does a lot of good things for them outside,” Rodgers said. “He has good ball skills, good awareness. He’s definitely a quickly ascending player on their defense.”

KUECHLY KICKED OUT: This was the opponent against whom Kuechly got kicked out last year when he pulled another player off the pile and then allegedly made contact with an official. Replays showed Kuechly didn’t touch the official and the league later admitted Kuechly shouldn’t have been tossed from the game. The mild-mannered Kuechly didn’t want to talk about the incident, but that helped shape the rule as it today.

COVERED COBB: Randall Cobb, the Packers’ best playmaker, is no longer on the injury report for the right shoulder he sprained in the preseason. He remains a primary target of opposing defenses. Cobb managed just 27 yards on six catches last week against Denver. The Packers have lined up Cobb in the backfield on occasion over his five seasons. They might need to move him around the field more against a tough Carolina defense.

DEFENSE RESTS: After a solid start, the Packers’ defense has been porous the last two games, allowing at least 500 yards each time out. It was leaky all over the field last week. Green Bay has allowed at least 160 yards on the ground in two of its last three games and now faces Carolina’s top-ranked rushing attack and dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton. The Packers, though, have had admirable stretches this season against mobile signal-callers, including Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick.

STEWART CHURNING OUT YARDS: While Eddie Lacy has been a virtual nonfactor this season for the Packers, Jonathan Stewart is turning up the heat in Carolina. He has run for 285 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games. Carolina is hoping four-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will return from an ankle injury after missing last week’s game. He was limited in practice this week.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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