Panthers must be careful not to get too cocky

Carolina made a big statement with its victory over New England before a national television audience. Should the Panthers stumble today at Miami, so much of the legitimacy they gained from that win could disappear.

The Dolphins come off a win over San Diego despite all the inner turmoil over the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair, and remain firmly in the AFC wild-card race. So if anyone in the Carolinas sees this game as a slam dunk, they'd better re-evaluate.

"They are 5-5 and they are going to bring out their best football," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "But I don't see us letting down. We are going to go out and play our best football. We're trying to go up, we're not trying to go down."

Carolina owns the top wild-card berth in the NFC with six weeks to go. It was won six straight with an overpowering defense and timely offense. Quarterback Cam Newton is playing as well as he did in taking top offensive rookie honors in 2011. Everything is coming together for the Panthers.

Which always can breed cockiness.

"That is one of things I've talked to the players about — everything we've done, hey, we can take a step back (with a loss)," coach Ron Rivera said. "And we don't want to. So we have to stay focused and focus in on who we're playing.

"We want to be relevant. We want to remain relevant. We want to stay in the conversation."

Denver (9-1)at New England (7-3)

Ah, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Always a high-profile matchup between two all-time greats.

Brady owns a 9-4 record against his rival, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick usually comes up with a defensive scheme that slows or even confounds Manning. But New England, plagued by injuries throughout the defense, might not have the talent to slow Denver's attack that is on a near-record pace.

WR Wes Welker, who became a star in New England, returns to Foxborough after joining the Broncos this year.

San Diego (4-6)at Kansas City (9-1)

Now that the Chiefs have a loss and they can forget about that perfection distraction, they need to find a way to handle the enigmatic Chargers. San Diego has won four of the last five against Chiefs and has been playing opponents close, losing three straight by a combined 18 points.

Kansas City's opportunistic defense (NFL best with five defensive TDs and a plus-15 turnover differential) has 36 sacks, but will find it difficult to get to Philip Rivers, who has been trapped only 19 times.

Indianapolis (7-3)at Arizona (6-4)

Bruce Arians stepped in for an ill Chuck Pagano last season and won Coach of the Year in Indianapolis as an interim. He has the Cardinals job full time now, and faces the AFC South-leading Colts with an Arizona team that has won three in a row.

Dallas (5-5)at New York Giants (4-6)

Now that the Giants have re-established themselves as a pretty solid team with four straight victories, they can become a challenger in the NFC East by handling up-and-down Dallas. Eli Manning has stopped throwing picks and New York's defense has awakened after that early-season slumber.

Chicago (6-4) at St. Louis (4-6)

The Bears aren't losing any sleep about Jay Cutler being sidelined with a high left ankle sprain because backup quarterback Josh McCown has passed for five touchdowns with no interceptions in four games overall. The injury-plagued defense got two sacks last week from Julius Peppers, doubling his season total, and he had a season-best 11 tackles. An active Peppers is critical if Chicago is to stay in playoff contention; it's tied with the Lions atop the NFC North.

Tampa Bay (2-8) at Detroit (6-4)

Don't look now, but the Buccaneers are a hot team. They've won two in a row, and received an offensive spark from undrafted rookie RB Bobby Rainey, who rushed for 163 yards and two TDs and caught a pass for a score last week against Atlanta. Veteran WR Vincent Jackson had 10 receptions against the Falcons with a season-high 165 yards.

Minnesota (2-8)at Green Bay (5-5)

Adrian Peterson heads into his 100th career game approaching another milestone. He needs 67 yards rushing to pass Barry Sanders for third-most yards on the ground in the first 100 games of a career, and he's 300 yards from 10,000.

New York Jets (5-5)at Baltimore (4-6)

Ed Reed already has made one return visit to his old stomping grounds near the Inner Harbor, with Houston. The Texans cut him, he landed with the Jets, and now is back in Baltimore. He'd better hope the rest of his defensive mates come along — they barely showed up in last week's loss at Buffalo.

Pittsburgh (4-6)at Cleveland (4-6)

Today's winner in this bitter rivalry can keep alive playoff hopes, although catching Cincinnati in the AFC North is a long shot.

An Ohio native, Ben Roethlisberger is 15-1 against the Browns and won his last five starts against Cleveland. He comes off a strong outing in a win over the Lions: 367 yards passing and four TDs.

Tennessee (4-6) at Oakland (4-6)

The Titans are playing the first of three straight road games. They are 2-2 away from Nashville and desperately need this one because the next two trips are to Indy and Denver.

Raiders QB Matt McGloin became the first undrafted rookie since the start of the common draft in 1967 go have TD passes and no interception in a game filling in for injured Terrelle Pryor.

Jacksonville (1-9)at Houston (2-8)

For those who think Houston's season can't get any worse after eight straight defeats — yes, the Texans were the division favorite heading into 2013 — a loss to the lowly Jaguars would be rock bottom.

San Francisco (6-4)at Washington (3-7)Monday night

The defending NFC champion Niners suddenly are in a dogfight to get a wild-card playoff berth. They trail idle Seattle by 3 1-2 games and aren't likely to make up that deficit in the NFC West.

After two straight defeats in which the offense has sputtered, San Francisco faces a weak defense that ranks 28th overall, 26th against the pass.

Much of the attention in Washington has been on whether QB Robert Griffin III was criticizing the coaches and his teammates after last Sunday's loss to Philadelphia. In the midst of a flop of a season after winning the NFC East, the last thing the Redskins need is another distraction.

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