On Oct.13, in Minneapolis, the Panthers began the surge that would turn the season around.
It started quietly. Rivera had been thinking about his inherent conservatism -- sometimes when driving home, sometimes on the team bus. The former defensive coordinator, when it came down to it, usually would kick the ball away and trust his defense to make a play. In his first 34 games as an NFL head coach, he had gone for it on fourth down fewer times than any coach in the NFL except former Panthers head man John Fox.
But on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32 in the first quarter, Rivera skipped the field goal and instead sent Mike Tolbert bulling for two yards and a first down. Later in the same drive, the Panthers would go for a fourth down at the goal line and score. Carolina would end up winning, 35-10.
The following week, in a home game against St. Louis, the Panthers would win a game with pro wrestling overtones. The Rams were called for five personal fouls and had one player thrown out. The Panthers gave as good as they got, but within the rules, and kept their composure in a 30-15 win.
"Honestly, I think the time we got in a fight against the Rams was a big deal for us," offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "We put our foot down. Our team kind of came together. It really ignited the fans. And since then that's been the turning point as far as the attitude of our home field."
The Panthers then blew out Tampa Bay, 31-13, in Florida and came back home to drill Atlanta, 34-10. The Panthers had gone from 1-3 to 5-3, moving over the .500 mark for the first time since the 2008 season.
But all four wins had come against inferior competition, and the meat of the Panthers' schedule still loomed. The question was no longer whether the Panthers could win any games. It was whether they could beat a good team.
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