Wednesday December 12th, 2018 12:41AM

Panthers open post-Benjamin era vs. NFC South rival Falcons

By The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Panthers never informed quarterback Cam Newton of their intentions to trade away his No. 1 receiver and closest friend on the team before making the move.

Newton discovered Kelvin Benjamin was sent packing to Buffalo the same time most people did — after it happened.

The 2015 league MVP didn't exactly appear overjoyed by the trade at his news conference this week. But he didn't criticize the move, either. Instead he tried turning the attention toward the future, saying the Panthers now have to "move on," beginning Sunday when they host the Atlanta Falcons.

"Think Atlanta cares about that? Know what I'm saying?" Newton said of trade. "My feelings aren't relevant. We got one job to do and that's win football games. And I'm up to that task."

The Panthers had better hope Newton doesn't let any sour feelings linger.

The Saints (5-2), Panthers (5-3) and Falcons (4-3) are bunched together in the NFC South standings. Every game is important, particularly division ones, from here on out.

Either rookie Curtis Samuel or Russell Shepard is expected to start opposite Devin Funchess, coach Ron Rivera said. Kaelin Clay will also see action. It will be at least two more games before Pro Bowl tight Greg Olsen returns from injured reserve and is ready to play, so the Panthers have to deal with what they have for now.

Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey currently leads the Panthers in receptions.

"They'll probably give (Samuel) more touches and probably use McCaffrey more as well in the pass game," Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "Whatever they do, we'll be ready, we'll be prepared."

FALCONS NOT SCORING: There have been many questions about an Atlanta offense which was held below 20 points in three straight losses before recovering in last week's 25-20 win at the Jets.

The Falcons rank in the middle of the league with their 21.6 points per game, a big drop from their league-leading 33.8 average last season.

The numbers suggest the Falcons are having more success moving the ball than scoring. They are averaging 6.18 yards per play, which ranks second in the NFL. Their 4.79 yards per rush ranks fourth in the league.

But Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly isn't taking the Falcons lightly.

"They are good everywhere on offense ...," Kuechly said. "They're scary, and they can hang 40 on you if you blink."

NO LOOKING BACK: At 4-3, the Falcons have the same record through seven games as they did last season when they advanced to the Super Bowl. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he's not using that as motivation for his team.

"For us, our shifting the page has turned to 2017, to see how good we can get," Quinn said. "Our best is kind of just staying in the present moment and trying to win this week, this round."

DIVISION GAMES: The Falcons are nearly halfway through their schedule and just now playing their first divisional game, something defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said feels "a little weird."

"Hard to believe it's November and we're just getting started on our division play," added Falcons coach Dan Quinn. "But we are lit up about that in a good way. We have talked from the very beginning about how strong we think this division is and how battled-tested it makes the teams in it."

The Panthers have already played two divisional games, losing to New Orleans earlier in the season and beating Tampa Bay last week.

JULIO, GET THE STRETCH: Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has had a very quiet year by his own standards with only one 100-yard game and one touchdown. But facing the Panthers could be the cure to those issues. Jones has 25 receptions for 538 yards and two TDs in his last three meetings with Carolina.

FREEMAN A STUD: Panthers middle linebacker Kuechly really likes the way Falcons running back Devonta Freeman plays, simply calling him a "stud" running back. He sees Freeman as a tremendous challenge for the Panthers defense

"He's quick, he's shifty, he runs with power and has really good balance," Kuechly said.


AP Sports Writer Charles Odum from Atlanta contributed to this report.


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