CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers Coach Ron Rivera heard the cheers and then saw the out-of-town highlights on the Bank of America Stadium big screen. A few players caught a glance as they waited for postgame treatment.
The Panthers, one of the NFL’s unlikely contenders, had done their part, holding off the New York Jets, 30-20. Afterward, they waited to see whether the New Orleans Saints were really losing to the St. Louis Rams — reopening the NFC South division race.
“To be honest with you, I did get distracted a couple times,” Rivera said after his team’s 10th win and ninth in its past 10 games.
The Panthers, who started 1-3 and seemed on the verge of firing Rivera, are a young franchise that has seen its share of disappointment, but they have spent this season reveling in so much going right. Next week, they will host the Saints in a game that presumably will decide the division champion. Both teams will end the regular season a week later against underachieving division rivals — Carolina at Atlanta and New Orleans at home against Tampa Bay. Two more wins for either team will clinch a first-round playoff bye.
“We control our own destiny right now,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. “We’ve just got to continue doing the things that we’ve been doing up until this point. Things that are uncharacteristic of us can’t happen during the game.”
On Sunday, Rivera and his team did experience some turns that hadn’t been part of Carolina’s turnaround. The third-year coach, who in the past stuck to conservative game plans, has taken an aggressive approach this season. Entering Sunday, the Panthers went for it on fourth down 12 times, succeeding on 10 occasions. The gambles have earned Rivera the nickname “Riverboat Ron,” a moniker he has only recently embraced, but against the Jets, his luck seemed to turn.
In the third quarter, Rivera again went for it, this time on fourth and two. Wide receiver Steve Smith couldn’t hold on to Newton’s pass, though, and the Jets responded with an 86-yard touchdown drive. To make matters worse for Rivera — a linebacker for the Super Bowl champion 1985 Chicago Bears — the Jets scored when rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson carried the ball into the end zone. It was shades of William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Rivera’s defensive teammate during that championship season.
“I was trying to get a spark,” the coach said. “I wanted a spark. We had kicked three field goals, and we didn’t score touchdowns. As I have said before, in this league you have to score touchdowns if you’re going to win football games.”
Rivera instead had to wait for a spark from elsewhere, and so he watched as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn intercepted a pass from Jets quarterback Geno Smith, returning it 41 yards for a touchdown.
Things have just gone right for the Panthers for much of these past 10 games, and perhaps it is simply a matter of attitude. Last season, Carolina struggled through a 7-9 season, questioning Newton’s long-term viability as its starting quarterback and coming to terms that Rivera wouldn’t be the coach to lead the Panthers to the postseason. The NFL Network reported earlier this season that the team’s front office, including first-year general manager Dave Gettleman, had begun looking into potential replacements for the 51-year-old coach. Carolina waited, a gamble of its own, and it has been rewarded.
Tight end Greg Olsen said Rivera’s belief that his team — despite a 6-10 record in 2011 and last year’s nine-loss season — can reach the postseason hasn’t changed, even if the details have.
“That speaks a lot about guys believing in him and guys continuing through the tough times to play hard and win, when everyone said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ ” Olsen said. “It matters. All those learning experiences of winning carry over to this year. To say that one doesn’t have to do with the other is wrong.”
Newton completed 16 of 24 passes for 273 yards, including a screen pass that running back DeAngelo Williams turned into a 72-yard touchdown. The Panthers also blocked a punt, leading to another touchdown. Newton admitted things weren’t perfect, namely his team’s red-zone offense; Panthers place kicker Graham Gano kicked three field goals.
The Jets, meanwhile, are in a place familiar to the Panthers. Is Smith, their young quarterback, a significant part of the team’s future, or will New York eventually have to move on again after a failed experiment with Mark Sanchez? What about Coach Rex Ryan, whose job security has fluctuated through the years and, most recently, whose team has been an inconsistent underachiever? At best, the 6-8 Jets can finish with a .500 record, and they’ll enter an offseason of uncertainty.
But in Carolina, no matter what happens next or in the immediate future, Rivera’s job now seems safe, and Newton has retaken his place among the league’s most exciting quarterbacks.
Newton said his team would be “greedy with preparation” before playing the Saints, who are responsible for Carolina’s only loss since early October. Newton said a loss next week won’t be blamed on taking New Orleans lightly, especially considering the game’s implications.
“We have to have a great week of practice, watch the film tomorrow, come in and improve on our mistakes,” Newton said. “If we do that, we’ll be great.”