CHARLOTTE — After blowing fourth quarter leads in each of their last three games, it'd be easy for the Carolina Panthers to start moping around Bank of America Stadium. Coach Ron Rivera is trying to keep that negative attitude from setting in, reiterating to players better times are ahead and soon.
The Panthers may be 1-5, but they've been in every game late, although they haven't quite figured out how to finish. Rivera said it's inevitable the wins will come.
"There is a mountaintop and we're climbing to it," Rivera said. "I want to believe we see it. We see what's up there. We see the possibility and we see the potential. Like they say though, the problem with potential is potentially you're good enough and potentially you get fired."
Rivera, in his first year with the Panthers, is in no danger of getting fired. He's done an impressive job of turning an uncompetitive team that went 2-14 last year into one that legitimately could be 6-0.
His biggest mission now may be keeping up the spirits of the men who play for him, including rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who has developed a reputation for taking losing extremely hard.
Rivera jokingly referred to him as "Mister Mopeyhead" in his Monday press conference.
"To me you find solace in the fact that we're getting better and there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Rivera said after Carolina's 31-17 loss to Atlanta that got away from them in the fourth quarter. "Heck, I'm excited to come to work. I am. And I know our players are too. Sure, it's a tough pill to swallow but you have to get your head up. I have to come in with the right attitude because I have a group of guys that I have to keep focused and (make them) realize that we are getting better and when we do get better it's going to be great."
If the Panthers are going to turn things around, this is the time.
After losing their last four games to teams that made the playoffs last season, the Panthers have reached the easier portion of their schedule with their next three games at home against Washington (3-2), Minnesota (1-5) and Tennessee (3-2).
Rivera isn't the only one who believes the Panthers are close to being a winning team. Prior to Sunday's loss, Rivera received a phone call from his former boss in San Diego, Chargers head coach Norv Turner.
Turner, whose son Scott works as Carolina's offensive quality control coach, told Rivera he watched Panthers game tape during his bye last week and was impressed.
"He said, 'Wow Ron, your guys are a play away. You get one guy to make a catch, or a tackle here or there, get a sack and all of sudden it changes.'" Rivera said. "So that's what I said to the guys Saturday. I said to them, 'Do you guys realize how close you are?'"
The problem is the Panthers aren't making that one play to put them over the hump.
On Sunday, things fell apart quickly.
Carolina entered the fourth quarter with a 17-14 lead, but a three-and-out following a costly holding penalty on wide receiver Legedu Naanee and an interception by Newton on a screen pass led to a pair of touchdowns by the Falcons.
"It's real frustrating because you get to this point where enough is enough and you have to win," said safety Jordan Pugh. "It's on us as players. We have to pull out a win."
Just before halftime, the Panthers had a golden opportunity to score. Newton appeared to have Steve Smith open on a quick post, but defensive back William Moore, who was covering a different receiver at the time, reached his hand back and tipped Newton's pass into the arms of cornerback Brent Grimes.
"You watch it over and over again, and it should have been a touchdown," Rivera said. "I mean, we're a play away. We just have to find who's going to make that play."