A day after another demoralizing loss in which his team blew a fourth-quarter lead at Buffalo, Panthers coach Ron Rivera reminded his players Monday how close theyve been to winning these close games.
Its been a familiar refrain throughout Riveras three seasons in Carolina.
Third verse, same as the first.
You talk about how close you are, and its time to get over the hump, Rivera said of his message to his team. Weve done this before. Weve been through this, and thats the thing thats disheartening. Youd like to believe that weve gotten to the point where weve learned from these things and now its about getting these things done.
The statistics have been cited ad nauseam, but until the Panthers change their fate in close games, they bear repeating:
• With the last-second, 24-23 loss to Buffalo, Carolina now is 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Rivera.
• Since Rivera arrived before the 2011 season, the Panthers have lost 10 games in which theyve led in the fourth quarter, tied with Philadelphia for the most during that span, according to STATS INC.
• The Panthers (0-2) have squandered two fourth-quarter leads already this season, making them statistical long shots for a playoff berth and further clouding Riveras future in Charlotte.
Rivera, who is 13-21 in his first head coaching job, waited nearly a week after the 2012 season before owner Jerry Richardson told him he would be retained. Rivera said Monday he had not heard from Richardson since the loss to the Bills.
Rivera deflected questions about his future, saying the focus was on the New York Giants, who come to Charlotte on Sunday in search of their first win.
Theyre 0-2 as well, Rivera said. Theyre as desperate as we are.
Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, teams that started 0-2 have made the playoffs 11.6 percent of the time.
But Panthers first-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula said the Panthers are better than their record indicates.
Were obviously not perfect. But in my opinion, we dont deserve to be 0-2, Shula said. We should be correcting these mistakes showing the good and the bad but doing it after two wins. Weve just to keep grinding away.
Our guys have been great, Shula added. The effort theyve been giving and the way our guys have shown even from early in training camp the belief they have in each others been great. This is testing you, but its been great.
Riveras end-of-game management at Buffalo has been questioned after he elected for a field goal that put the Panthers up 23-17, rather than go for a fourth-and-1 from the Bills 21.
Less has been made about Shulas call the play before a rush for fullback Mike Tolbert on third-and-5 from the Bills 25 with 1 minute, 48 seconds left. Shula called for a three-receiver set an alignment the Panthers used earlier in the game on a running play for quarterback Cam Newton.
Left guard Amini Silatolu and tight end Greg Olsen pulled on the play, which bogged down when Buffalo defenders cut the Panthers blockers. Tolberts 4-yard gain was a yard short of the first down, and Rivera sent Graham Gano in for a 39-yard field goal.
We came up a yard short of running the clock out. We were running the ball beautifully on that drive, Shula said. They actually cut our guys in the hole and kind of wadded things up, so there wasnt quite as much running (room).
The Panthers wasted opportunities to put the game away on their previous two drives after their defense forced Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel into two turnovers. Despite starting on Buffalos 16 and 26, the Panthers settled for field goals both times.
Thats not good enough on our part. Our defense did a great job getting us the ball, Shula said. If we get just one of those in there, we win the game.
Instead, the Bills took over at their 20 following Ganos third field goal and promptly drove 80 yards, taking advantage of the Panthers injury-depleted secondary on Manuels game-winning, 2-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with two seconds left.
It left the Panthers searching for answers that have eluded them since Rivera arrived in town.
Theres no magic about it, center Ryan Kalil said. We just have to do a better job of finishing the games. And we can get that done. Weve got to go back to work and figure out how to do it.
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