They expected his return all along.

Carolina Panthers (9-4) will take on the Green Bay Packers (7-6), who are still in contention for a playoff birth. A collarbone injury has kept Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out since October 15 and earlier this week the team announced he’s been cleared by doctors to return Sunday against the Panthers.

Did the news surprise Panthers as they didn’t get the official word until Wednesday?

“No,” head coach Ron Rivera said during Wednesday’s press conference. “It was said he could have comeback and that’s how we prepared for it.

“I told our guys it doesn’t matter if he plays we still have to play the Packers.”

This was a sentiment Julius Peppers shared as he will be playing against a foe he rivaled with for four years with Chicago Bears (2010-13) before he became his teammate on the Packers for three seasons (2014-16).

“Its the same team…he does elevate that team when he’s out there but we’ll be ready,” Peppers told reporters Thursday.

One advantage Panthers have in their favor is Peppers understanding tricks Rodgers use during a game. One being his method to play uptempo to throw the defense off their game. By playing Panther defense they won’t allow Rodgers to dictate the tempo, Peppers confirmed. Hard counts and catching 12 players on the field, when subbing, are two other things the defense will need to be on their toes for when playing against Rodgers, Peppers said. But when it comes to whether Peppers will construct the gameplan there’s no need for the former Packer to do such, he said.

“I let the coaches kind of detail those things from the film study. Technique things and game plan, I’ll let the coaches do their job,” Peppers said.

After all, through 13 games Panthers rank fifth in defense. Understanding the defense will have their hands full Cam Newton is glad he only has to handle his part on offense.

“I’m lucky not to be having to play against him (Rodgers), as far as schematically this week, but I believe our defense has that under control,” Newton said. “I’m trying to make sure this offense is at its premium on Sunday.”

After Jonathan Stewart’s performance last week where he ran for 103 yards and three touchdowns he was named the week 14 NFC Offensive Player of the Week. Continuing the tradition of Panther football effective running is key to their success, Newton said.

“We know who we are, we know what our DNA is. The better Stew is, the better this offense is,” Newton said. “We have to run the football, that’s our niche as an offense. We need Stew involved, we need C-Mac and Fozzy, and CAP…our offensive line has to get physical. That’s our nature as long as I’ve been here.”

To get the win against Minnesota Vikings last week it came down to a run by Newton to put the team in position to win when Panthers found themselves in a tied game late in the fourth quarter. Newton is willing to do the same and expose himself as a runner as long as its going to help his team win.

“I have no problem with running the football,” Newton said. “I’m just trying to put as much pressure on the defense as possible and give them things other quarterbacks can’t give them.”

“I’m just in it to win football games…I know why I play this game.”

By Gino Terrell

This was originally published in MCXV December 15, 2017.

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