SAN DIEGO — The weather turns cold. The Carolina Panthers turn good. Shoppers rush to the malls. The Panthers rush Sunday for 155 impressive yards. Holiday turkeys are stuffed. Carolinas offensive and defensive line stuffs San Diego all afternoon.
The Panthers beat two-loss Atlanta 30-20 last week and San Diego 31-7 Sunday. Theyve won two games in a row for the first time all season and are in position to finish 2012 with a flourish.
A strong finish, however, can be hazardous to a teams health. A suddenly confident team becomes convinced the first three months of the season were a fluke and that it now knows how to win.
The Panthers won four of their final six games in 2011. They came into 2012 figuring they would begin the way they finished. Except for the draft, Carolina added little talent. It didnt need to, you see, because it won four of the last six games it played.
Momentum ends when the season does. The Panthers stumbled into 2012, losing six of their first seven games.
Last season they finished 6-10. This season they are 5-9.
As is customary, the playoffs remain a magical, mystical and mythical place where other teams go.
Good teams hit their stride in September, October and November, Panther running back DeAngelo Williams says. Unfortunately for us we lost a lot of games early on.
Now youre winning. What happened?
I have no idea, man, says Williams, who rushed for 93 yards Sunday and took a deflected screen pass 45 yards for a touchdown. I cant put my finger on it at all.
I ask left tackle Jordan Gross why the Panthers suddenly are effective.
I dont know, Gross says. If I knew we would have changed it early on.
Adds Williams: Yeah, we would done something about it. Hes definitely right about that.
If youre a fan of the Panthers, are you thrilled by their performance against the Falcons and the Chargers?
Or are you furious they needed three months to figure out how to win?
Do you credit head coach Ron Rivera for coaxing players who will not make the playoffs to play as hard as the players that do?
Or do you rip him for winning games that mean much less than they did in September and October?
Rivera has established an unfortunate pattern.
Heres a month-by-month breakdown of his won-loss record:
• Sept.: 2-5.
• Oct.: 1-7.
• Nov.: 3-4.
• Dec.: 5-2.
• January: 0-1.
• Playoffs: 0
I ask Rivera if the Panthers could have played three months ago the way they played Sunday.
Id like to say yes but probably the biggest thing thats happened for us is the confidence level with which were playing, Rivera says.
Like others in and formerly in the organization, Rivera believes that if the Panthers had beaten Atlanta Sept. 30 the season would have taken a different trajectory. They had that game, in the Georgia Dome, youll recall, and they gave it away.
I think that game took a lot out of us, Rivera says.
The Panthers are winning because their offensive and defensive lines are better, their quarterback is better and their play calling, especially on offense, is better, and their special teams are less worse. Theyre winning because they commit fewer penalties and fewer turnovers than the teams they play.
Theyre more confident because theyve won two straight and three out of four.
That they failed to win when it mattered is a reflection on Rivera. They didnt suddenly become more talented. Because of injuries they are less talented.
A head coach learns as he goes, and Id like to think that Rivera, in his second season, is learning. If he wins the next two games, or one of the two, will that be enough to save his job?
I dont know and nobody else I assume not even owner Jerry Richardson knows.
The new general manager will solicit input from Richardson among others and make the call.
Many boxers win rounds by finishing fast and hoping the finish is what judges remember.
Rivera hopes the strategy works on general managers, too.