ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — Though the Oakland Raiders were long ago eliminated from playoff contention, Andre Carter is relishing the final few weeks of the season as if it were a championship run.
Just over a year after sustaining a quadriceps injury that could have ended his career, the defensive end thinks he's almost all the way back to the form that earned him his first Pro Bowl selection in 2011.
"I'm pretty close," Carter said Friday. "As a player you always have to be honest with yourself and say, 'OK, maybe I can still contribute, but not on a high level.' I still like I can play at a high level. I still feel like I can be a productive player."
Carter had a sack and three quarterback hurries in the Raiders' 15-0 victory over Kansas City last week, and has played 70 snaps over the past two games.
His overall numbers (25 tackles, two sacks in 10 games) aren't on the elite level. However, over the past month, Carter been one of the Raiders' most productive defensive linemen while nudging out starter Matt Shaughnessy for playing time.
What Carter doesn't have is a contract for next season.
The seventh overall pick in 2001, who enters Sunday's game at Carolina eighth among active players with 78 career sacks, is one of 21 players on Oakland's roster scheduled to become free agents next season.
What the market will be for an aging defensive lineman coming off a major injury is uncertain, especially for one who turns 34 next May.
Not that Carter seems too concerned about it. At this stage in his career, simply being back on the field and playing is enough.
"I tell everybody, I count my blessings every day especially with this type of injury," Carter said. "Some guys would probably hang it up. I came across guys that just pushed through, and I knew I could overcome it."
It wasn't easy.
The torn quadriceps muscle he sustained against Denver on Dec. 18, 2011, required eight months of immobilization followed by extensive rehab.
Carter spoke with a few teams while out of football but remained unemployed until signing with the Raiders on Sept. 27.
Since then, he's provided much-needed leadership on a defensive line that has been without its best player (defensive tackle Richard Seymour) for the past six weeks. Seymour will miss a seventh consecutive game this week due to a lingering hamstring injury.
"You can't say enough about Andre," said Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who was an assistant with San Francisco during Carter's five seasons with the 49ers from 2001-05. "Even when he was a rookie he was the ultimate pro because you told him something, he took it in, applied it, tried it and then came back and gave you feedback. That experience he brings in there ... another voice to help your guys, that's all he cares about is winning."
That's not happened much this season for the Raiders.
Oakland (4-10) is attempting to win consecutive games for only the second time this season. To do that, Carter and his colleagues on the defensive line will have to contain Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton is easily the most elusive quarterback the Raiders have faced this season. He has been sacked 33 times this season — eighth most in the NFL — but needs only 53 rushing yards to break the 700-yard mark for the second straight year.
As good as Newton has been this season, Carter hopes his teammates don't get too careful trying to contain Carolina's speedy quarterback who has been at his best when scrambling away from pressure.
"Those types of quarterbacks are dangerous," Carter said. "At the same time you can't be tentative and not do your job. It's very important to be disciplined and communicate. If you do those things then you'll be successful."
Notes: Safety Tyvon Branch practiced for the first time this week but is questionable after being limited. ... CB Phillip Adams will return punts against the Panthers after splitting the duties with WR Denarius Moore last week. Adams suffered a concussion in that game but was cleared by doctors earlier this week.