Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera took two questions Monday about the dispiriting loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday and then he’d heard enough, saying he was shifting his focus to this week’s wild-card game against the New Orleans Saints.
Not only did the Panthers want to flush the 22-10 defeat to the Falcons as quickly as possible, they’ll also need all their attention and energy to figure out a way to beat a New Orleans team that defeated them twice during the regular season.
“We can’t let them beat us three times,” Panthers defensive end Mario Addison said. “You’ve got to come out swinging. You’ve got to throw everything at them, including the kitchen sink.”
The Panthers (11-5) could have been hosting a game this weekend as the NFC South champs had they knocked off the Falcons. Instead, they’ll return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the second time in five weeks to face the Saints (11-5), who won the division despite falling to Tampa Bay in the final minute Sunday.
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Panthers’ players know they let an opportunity slip away, but say there’s no time to dwell on it.
“At the end of the day we’re here. There’s 20 other teams that are packing up, getting ready to be done for the season and going home,” running back Fozzy Whittaker said. “It’s still a great opportunity and a blessing for us to be in this position regardless of what happens.”
Sunday’s game in New Orleans will mark the 21st time since 1970 that a team has faced a division rival in the playoffs with one team having swept the other in the regular-season series, according to Elias. Thirteen of those teams that swept went on to win the playoff game and go 3-0 against their rivals.
The last team to take the playoff meeting after getting swept during the regular season was the 2007 New York Giants, who beat Dallas in the divisional round on their way to a Super Bowl title.
The Panthers are making their fourth playoff appearance in five seasons. New Orleans is back in the postseason for the first time since 2013 after three consecutive 7-9 seasons.
Addison says Carolina’s playoff experience will be a plus.
“These guys are very experienced. They know what to do. It’s a big game and we know what’s on the line,” Addison said. “We can’t say it’s like another game. We’ve got to approach it like it’s the big game because we won’t get to the dance if we don’t win this game.”
Second-year cornerbacks Daryl Worley and James Bradberry will be making their first playoff starts. Worley says veterans have told him what to expect.
“Everyone has the same message: It’s next level, and everything has to go to a next level. Everything’s moving at a new speed, now that it’s going to be a playoff,” Worley said. “That starts in practice, that starts on film. Everything just has to be taken up a step.”
Sunday’s game in Atlanta had a playoff-type feel and the Panthers failed to match the Falcons’ intensity.
Worse, Rivera saw a few of his players get too worked up arguing non-calls by the officials, namely linebacker Thomas Davis (for a pick on tight end Austin Hooper), wideout Devin Funchess (who wanted a pass interference call) and tight end Greg Olsen (who took a shot to the helmet from safety Keanu Neal).
It was reminiscent of Rivera’s first playoff game with the Panthers in 2013, when defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell picked up early personal foul penalties against San Francisco that led to field goals in the 49ers’ 23-10 victory.
“(Sunday) felt a little bit like that, kind of reminded me. That’s one of the things I said to the guys, ‘We got a little caught up in it,’” Rivera said. “We weren’t happy with some of the calls that weren’t made and I think we got a little distracted by that.”
Rivera said he hopes his players – especially the young guys who haven’t been here before – heard the message.
“This is playoff time. And you can’t lose your focus,” Rivera said he told his team. “You’ve got to keep it on the game.”