While several of his coaching colleagues were losing their jobs Monday, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera was enjoying his.
The Panthers’ third-year coach stood at a podium at Bank of America Stadium explaining the bye week plans and going over the preparations for the franchise’s first playoff game since 2008.
Rivera acknowledged what was going on in other NFL cities, saying he sympathized with three of his friends who were fired – Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano, Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier and Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator in Rivera’s first two seasons.
“You feel for those guys because it’s tough,” Rivera said. “It’s a tough business. We all understand that.”
Three months ago, more than a couple of NFL observers had Rivera in the “hot seat” category after the Panthers’ 1-3 start. There was widespread speculation that Rivera might not make it to the final year of his four-year deal.
Then the Panthers started winning, and – aside from a hiccup in New Orleans – never stopped.
Rivera, who was 13-19 after his first two seasons, said he saw it coming all along.
“It’s where I believed and envisioned we would be,” Rivera said. “I talked to players when I first got the job and talked about where I believed we could be. I believed we could win it all, we could win the Super Bowl.”
The Panthers (12-4) need three more wins to realize Rivera’s Super Bowl goal. They will wait to see how the wild-card weekend shakes out before learning who they’ll host Jan. 12 in the divisional round.
The bye means an extra week to heal for the team’s three injured starters – receiver Steve Smith (knee), running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf).
The Panthers got a glimpse of what life without Smith, 34, might look like Sunday in the 21-20 win at Atlanta. It wasn’t pretty.
Carolina finished with 149 passing yards – half of which came on two catches by running back DeAngelo Williams.
The wide receiver trio of Brandon LaFell, Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. combined for four receptions for 22 yards. LaFell, the No. 1 receiver in Smith’s absence, was targeted five times and had no catches.
“It did illustrate what a veteran No. 1 receiver does for you,” Rivera said. “It’ll be good to have him back out there.”
Smith, who sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against New Orleans on Dec. 22, has not said with certainty that he’ll be back for the divisional-round game against either Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco.
Smith said he would not have been able to play in a wild-card game this weekend.
“The longer the better. But a short turnaround, you can’t do it,” Smith said. “I feel like it’s coming along.”
The passing game issues were not all the receivers’ fault. Quarterback Cam Newton completed 15 of 27 passes, was intercepted once and missed high on several throws – a persistent problem for Newton.
But neither Rivera nor offensive coordinator Mike Shula seemed alarmed.
“Some of it had to do with throwing the ball. Great reads, great decisions and the ball came out high a couple of times,” Rivera said. “If we can bring those down, the drives continue and who knows what could happen.”
Said Shula: “We had some missed opportunities. I call them drive-stoppers.
“It’s not groundbreaking what we have to do to get it fixed. We’re just a little bit off, probably more so in the pass game than the run game.”
LaFell had one pass go off his hands, and a couple of others were just beyond his reach. Since Smith was hurt in the first quarter of the Saints’ game, LaFell has one catch for 13 yards.
“He’s putting himself in position to be targeted. You’d like to see him make a couple of those plays,” Rivera said. “One was a chance he had, the others were a little high. But you’re in that (No. 1 receiver) spot, and people are going to pay a little more attention to you as far as the coverage is concerned. You’ve got to give (the Falcons) a little bit of credit on what they did to take away Brandon.”
The Panthers’ team-record nine sacks against quarterback Matt Ryan and Newton’s ability to make plays with his feet helped them overcome the passing woes and clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye.
The Panthers are the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and could host the NFC Championship Game if No. 1 Seattle were to lose.
Even after a lackluster loss at Arizona left the Panthers 1-3 in early October, Rivera said he never had any doubts.
“I always felt I was going to be right where I am,” he said.
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