Panthers coach Ron Rivera confirmed via conference call from Charlotte, North Carolina, to us this morning's news that his standout defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will not play in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff at Seattle because he broke a small bone in his foot stepping on a teammate during practice Tuesday. He had surgery this morning, Rivera said.
Lotulelei was Carolina's first-round draft choice in 2013 out of Utah and is a 320-pound force the Panthers were counting on to plug up running lanes the Seahawks are going to try to open Saturday for Marshawn Lynch and the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense.
Rivera says much more of that task is now going to fall to Colin Cole. Yes, that Colin Cole who started 26 games for the Seahawks over the 2009 and '10 seasons, the latter the first of the Pete Carroll regime in Seattle. The 15 starts and 48 tackles he had in '09 for Seahawks coach Jim Mora remain his career highs.
Rivera was glowing about the Seahawks, as coaches often are about opponents days before a game. But he was extraordinarily effusive about Russell Wilson.
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"I really think that quarterback should seriously be considered for league MVP," Rivera said. "All he's done is win."
The Panthers coach always marveled how through all his film study while facing the Seahawks for what this weekend will be the fourth time in three seasons he's never seen Wilson take a big hit while scrambling or running down field. He credits Wilson's smarts.
It's something Wilson takes pride in, his self-preservation and judgement on when to run, when to slide and when to throw the ball away, depending on game situations.
Rivera said that is different than his quarterback, Cam Newton. He also differentiated Wilson from his quarterback that many relate Seattle's to for their athleticism.
"Russell has this innate ability to pull back at the last second and throw the ball, where our guy, he commits he's going to run," Rivera said.
The rest of what Rivera said is here, starting with his relief that the fire that made his house uninhabitable early this week didn't injure any of his family -- and that it came on a Panthers day off:
--We also talked to Panthers lead running back Jonathan Stewart. He grew up in Washington and starred at Timberline High School in Lacey before doing the same at Oregon through the 2007 season. Stewart said he's scrounged up 10 tickets from teammates -- "only 10?" I asked -- for friends to attend Saturday's game. It's his second career one on the home field of his favorite team growing up; his favorite Seahawk was Ricky Watters. Stewart ran 21 times for 92 yards and a touchdown in Carolina's 31-14 loss in Seattle on Dec. 5, 2010.
"It should be pretty fun, definitely a good experience especially with the playoffs – being able to play back in my home state," Stewart said.
"In high school I was kind of day-by-day kind of person, never really jumped ahead. Of course, you always have dreams of playing in the NFL and maybe even envisioning yourself playing for the Seahawks growing up in Washington and all those other things. Being able to play this playoff game back home is definitely going to be a cherished moment as are a lot of the moments I’ve experienced in the NFL. Like I said, cherish the opportunities you get, especially playoff moments because you never know when your last appearance will be."
My colleague Don Ruiz is going to have a feature in Friday's News Tribune on Stewart, who is finally gaining prominence and consistency in Carolina after missing 24 games over the last six seasons to injury, including three in the middle of this season.
The funniest of his comments came when he described his recruiting visit to USC before he graduated from Timberline, when Pete Carroll was SC's coach.
"Yeah, I took a trip to USC and (former Seahawks defensive end) Lawrence Jackson was my host," Stewart said. "I remember being at a team meeting before the game where Pete Carroll gave his speech and stuff like that – he was really a player’s coach, I guess you would say.
"There was a song by Snoop Dogg during the time that they were singing as a team – it was definitely a different experience then all my other trips that I took."
The song: "Drop It Like It's Hot."
Wait ... was Carroll singing that?
"They were all singing," Stewart said, sounding amusesd, "but he was singing along, for sure."
Here is the audio of our call with Stewart: