Most NFL coaches would rather discuss politics or religion than the playoffs at least at midseason.
Former Colts coach Jim Mora will forever have a place in the annals of YouTube, thanks to his famously entertaining Playoffs? screed in 2001.
But Ron Rivera waded into the topic Monday when he was asked whether his third Panthers team was beginning to take on the look of a playoff club.
Yes, it does, he said. It feels like a team that has an opportunity, has a chance to go forward and be better. Were not anywhere (near) where we need to be. Theres a lot for us to do, a lot for us to learn.
Rivera made it to the Super Bowl as a player with the 1985 Bears and made it back as Chicagos defensive coordinator 21 years later. While he wasnt comparing the Panthers (5-3) to either of those teams, Rivera didnt shy away from the playoff talk when it came up Monday.
Im confident in who our guys are. And Im an optimist, Rivera said. But the thing I want to stress is this is the next most important game we play because its the one were about, and thats the 49ers.
If the playoffs started this week, the Panthers would get the last of the six NFC playoff spots.
But the postseason doesnt start this week. And of Carolinas eight remaining games, five are against teams with winning records, starting Sunday at San Francisco (6-2).
A sixth team Miami (4-4) is at .500.
The five teams the Panthers have beaten the New York Giants, Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta have combined for an 8-33 record.
Before the season began, the Panthers had the leagues toughest schedule, based on their opponents combined winning percentage (.543) in 2012.
But at the midpoint of their season, the Panthers currently have the leagues worst strength of schedule ranking, at .343.
You play who youre supposed to play, and thats the thing, Rivera said. You look at Atlanta. You cant tell me theyre a 2-6 team. Theres a lot of good football players on that team, a lot of Pro Bowlers, all-pros, a future Hall of Famer (in tight end Tony Gonzalez). You play who you play.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said success in the NFL often is a week-to-week proposition.
You look at teams and theyre good one week and the next week theyre getting blown out, McDermott said. Or theyre getting blown out one week and the next week they come back and theyre shutting people down.
McDermott was an assistant in Philadelphia when the Eagles were a perennial playoff team under Andy Reid.
What I know gets you in that position is if you play consistent football and you play well in the month of November and December, McDermott said. You win home games, you win division games. Thats the formula, really. Were playing good football right now, and weve got a huge test this weekend against a good football team.
The 49ers, who were off this past weekend, have won five games in a row by an average margin of 22.6 points.
San Francisco, which lost to Baltimore in the Super Bowl last season, is first in the league in rushing offense (153 yards a game) but last in passing (189.9).
Well get a good indication as to where we are, Rivera said. Theyre the defending NFC champs, played in the Super Bowl last year. So this will be a very good challenge for our guys.
Rivera said that, like other successful teams he has been a part of, the Panthers have been getting contributions from unexpected players (see defensive tackle-turned-offensive-lineman Nate Chandler and cornerback Drayton Florence in Sundays 34-10 win against Atlanta).
Theyve also been getting breaks. Rivera pointed to wideout Brandon LaFells recovery of his own fumble against the Falcons as the kind of fortuitous play winning teams seem to get.
Sometimes you also have to get the bounces, Rivera said. Youve got to be lucky. We were lucky (Sunday), too. We had a situation where the ball rolled back to Brandon LaFell. Well take it.
The Panthers four-game winning streak has them a game behind New Orleans (6-2) for first place in the NFC South. The teams dont play until Week 14 in the first of two meetings in a 15-day span.
Its interesting how the schedules turning out. We play them twice in three weeks in December, left tackle Jordan Gross said. All we can do is make those games important by winning the ones until then.
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