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Panthers hit bye with refreshing win, Rivera respite

The Sports Xchange

Panthers hit bye with refreshing win, Rivera respite

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tom Coughlin has won two Super Bowls. Ron Rivera has coached two full seasons without making the playoffs.

After starting 2013 with two losses that featured a pair of blown fourth-quarter leads, many thought Rivera could be coaching his final game with the Carolina Panthers Sunday. Instead, Rivera outmaneuvered Coughlin, and handed him his worst loss in 10 years with the New York Giants.

“It makes life a lot easier. It really does,” Rivera said after Carolina’s 38-0 rout, the most-lopsided win in the 19-year history of the Panthers. “This has been tough. The first two weeks have been disappointing. I know that. I know there were things we could have done better. We could have coached better and given our guys better opportunities to win.”

Facing the possibility of going into the bye week at 0-3 — the NFL’s version of a black hole for the rest of the season — Panthers owner Jerry Richardson may have entertained thoughts of letting Rivera go in what would have been another lost year.

But from the start, the third-year coach pushed all the right buttons in a game that may have meant his job.

Carolina won the opening coin clip to start the game, but Rivera elected to defer. He wanted to get his defense, a unit that allowed Bills’ rookie QB EJ Manuel to drive 80 yards for a game-winning score in Week 2, back on the field as soon as possible. Led by a swarming front seven, the defense responded, sacking quarterback Eli Manning three times on the Giants’ first two drives.

On the Panthers’ second drive, Rivera faced one of those decisions that have helped saddle him with a 2-14 record in games decided by seven points or less. Carolina had a fourth-and-inches at the Giants’ two-yard line. Many times, Rivera would elect to go the safe route and just take an opening field goal. This time though, he kept his offense on the field, and they rewarded him with a 2-yard touchdown by fullback Mike Tolbert. From there, the rout was on.

The Panthers improved to 1-2, and now go into the bye week with a renewed confidence. Their four games after the break provide what looks to be a soft part of the schedule — the Cardinals, Vikings, Rams and Buccaneers have combined to win just two games in the first three weeks.

But before that, Rivera will likely take a breath and smile for the first time since the 2013 season began. His back may have been up against the wall, but his players bailed him out with one of the more stunning outcomes in Panthers’ history.

“We’ve got a real elegant players’ coach,” said defensive end Greg Hardy, who had three of Carolina’s team record-tying seven sacks. “He wasn’t really worried about anything as far as himself. He basically came out and said, ‘Hey, (forget) me. I’m here for you guys. We’re going to win because we’re a team, not because of any of that.

“It’s amazing how you can come out and trust a guy. He gives you something like that, it makes you want to play 10 times harder.”

It wasn’t all about the defense Sunday.

Quarterback Cam Newton tossed three touchdowns and ran in for a fourth. But perhaps more importantly, he set the tone Wednesday by praising his teammates for the way they practiced. It was a simple thing, but one head coach Ron Rivera said was another sign of Newton’s rising maturity.

“A win like this boosts our ego, but not in a negative way,” Newton said. “It just gives us that swagger we will need continuously to go, we got a game on the road coming back, and that we’re going to need confidence. This game more or less, gave us confidence going to that game as well. Just believing in ourselves to know what we can do.”

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