Ron Rivera’s gamble played the odds on Panthers’ final drive

jjones@charlotteobserver.comNovember 24, 2013 

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Steve Smith (89) celebrates his 19-yard catch on fourth down that kept the Carolina Panthers’ winning drive alive and left Dolphins defenders in a heap behind him. Ron Rivera said afterward the decision to go for it on fourth down rather than punt and play defense was just playing the odds.

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— Before “Riverboat Ron” became Ron Rivera’s nickname, it was his dubious record in games decided by seven points or fewer that followed the Carolina Panthers’ coach.

The Panthers were 4-16 in those contests entering Sunday’s game against Miami, and if not for a surgical 12-play, 80-yard drive in the final four minutes of Sunday’s 20-16 victory against the Dolphins – as well as some timely timeouts by the Dolphins – that statistic could have gotten worse.

“Unfortunately, we had experience with two-minute drives a lot last year in our losses, so we’ve had a lot of practice,” said wide receiver Steve Smith, whose Panthers lost seven times by seven points or fewer in 2012. “As they say, practice makes perfect.”

Against the Dolphins, Cam Newton and the Panthers weren’t perfect, but they were plenty good enough to execute a four-minute drive that gave them their first lead since early in the game.

But the drive wasn’t without drama.

Trailing 16-13, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-10 at their own 20 with 2:33 left on the clock. Rivera, who has said he prefers “Calculated Risk-Taker” to “Riverboat Ron,” played the odds.

According to an advanced NFL statistics website’s win-probability calculator, the Panthers had a 14 percent chance of winning before the fourth-down snap. Had Carolina punted, and using the average Brad Nortman punt from Sunday, the Dolphins would have gotten the ball back with an 88 percent chance to win, and the Panthers would be left with one timeout and the 2-minute warning.

“We got to do it,” Rivera said of his decision. “We only had one timeout left. You know this (Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill) is a very elusive quarterback. He showed it.”

A 19-yard completion to Smith got the Panthers a first down, and a 9-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen got them near midfield at the 2-minute warning.

As Carolina crept into Graham Gano’s field-goal range, the Dolphins began using timeouts to preserve the clock in the event they got the ball back.

Those timeouts benefited both teams, though they might have helped the Panthers more. While Miami ultimately did get the ball back with less than a minute left, the three timeouts called by Dolphins coach Joe Philbin left his team with none when his offense took over.

Additionally, it gave a breather to several Panthers who were winded on an 82-degree day in South Florida.

“It was big-time relief. I ain’t going to lie,” receiver Brandon LaFell said. “Running all those deep routes sometimes you need a break. I was hoping we’d call a timeout, but we were in too big of a rhythm to call a timeout. Those guys calling a timeout trying to set up their defense gave us an extra breather and got us into better plays.”

Added left tackle Jordan Gross: “It was huge because we knew that if we did give them the ball back then they wouldn’t have any timeouts and that drive would have been a lot tougher for them. I thought it was smart that we kind of played it slow, caused them to use their timeouts.

“That was good coaching on our part.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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