But nobody told the Panthers that they still have to win some games at the beginning of the season, too.
1) Start incredibly slow
2) Eliminate yourself from playoff contention in November
3) Begin peaking in December with nothing on the line
Over the last two seasons, the Panthers are 2-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Ten of those "close" losses came in September and October, when the team was still in the playoff race.
In both 2011 and 2012, the Panthers stumbled out of the gate and dug themselves into 2-8 holes, shattering any hope of a postseason berth through just 10 games.
But once Ron Rivera's team becomes eliminated from playoff contention, it's like a switch flips.
In the last six games of 2011, the Panthers posted a 4-2 record. While they still lost to a pair of playoff teams – division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans – during this stretch, Carolina also thumped Indianapolis, Houston (with T.J. Yates starting) and Tampa Bay twice.
This season, the Panthers were mathematically eliminated them from the playoffs when the Buccaneers erased an 11-point fourth quarter deficit to win in overtime at Bank of America Stadium in Week 11.
In the final six games, Carolina went 5-1.
They blasted the Eagles in Philadelphia on Monday Night Football, handed the Falcons their second loss in a 30-20 home drubbing, clobbered the Chargers 31-7 in San Diego, won an ugly 17-6 home matchup against the Raiders and trampled the Saints 44-38 in New Orleans. Their only loss over this six-game split was to an emotional, but nonetheless futile, Kansas City Chiefs team.
In a nutshell, the Panthers are 4-16 when the games count and 9-3 when they're meaningless.
So, what does all this mean?
First of all, some of it is just sheer coincidence.
The quality of opponents has certainly declined both at the end of this season and last. Seven of those nine wins were against sub-.500 teams. You could probably count last year's win against Houston too, as they were forced to start rookie backup quarterback T.J. Yates in that game. So, in reality, the Week 14 win against the Falcons marked the only occasion where the Panthers defeated an unquestionably "good" team.
But it's not that simple.
That's because the Panthers have proven they can beat anyone – and lose to anyone, as well.
They've outplayed some of the premier teams in the NFL and been outplayed by some of the league's cellar dwellers.
Heck, you don't have to look too far back to find a convincing example.
In just two weeks time, the Panthers went from being dominated by a 1-10 Kansas City Chiefs to dominating an 11-1 Atlanta Falcons team.
When you get down to brass tacks, the overarching theme of the Rivera regime has been the inability to win close games when they count.
Some of this can be attributed to the pure youth of the team.
In 2011, there was no offseason and no expectations for the Panthers, who were coming off an abhorrent 2-14 season with Jimmy Clausen under center. With a rookie head coach taking over, the team was surprisingly potent on offense. But the defense struggled, mistakes were made, injuries piled up and the team lost a number of close games. Still, everyone was pleased with the progress.
After the "honeymoon" of 2011, the team faced a whole new set of expectations in 2012. Center Ryan Kalil even took out an ad in the Charlotte Observer guaranteeing a Super Bowl.
Frankly, the Panthers – particularly Cam Newton – wilted under the pressure in the early part of the season.
Newton struggled mightily dealing with failure for the first time in his football life. During the first two-and-a-half months of the season, the second-year quarterback made the headlines more for his sullen sideline demeanor and bizarre press conferences than his play on the field. The burden of winning and intense pressure to perform forced him into ill-advised throws and costly turnovers.
But the slow starts are certainly not all on Cam Newton.
With the exception of Steve Smith, there was a clear lack of leadership in the locker room. There weren't enough veteran voices to help build chemistry and keep the young guys, like Newton, in line.
Still, the biggest reason for the Panthers' early struggles has been a lack of experience and leadership from the coaches, not the players.
The shortcomings of the coaching staff stood out early in the season as the Panthers struggled to win momentous games.
They failed to establish an identity, failed to recognize key points in the game, failed to make necessary in-game adjustments, and, ultimately, failed to give the team the edge they needed to win those tight contests.
Instead of using their $85 million backfield to take some pressure off a struggling Cam Newton, Ron Rivera – along with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski – elected to ask their reeling quarterback to throw the ball 35 to 40 times a game. The playcalling also became ultra-conservative when the team held late-game leads, a philosophy which backfired several times in the first half of the season.
A number of specific gaffes immediately come to mind, several of which may have been the difference between a win and a loss. Among the most memorable are:
1) Needing just one yard on fourth down to beat Atlanta on the road in Week 4, Rivera elected to punt the ball instead of going for the first down. The Falcons would ultimately drive down the field and kick the game-winning field goal. While this isn't always the wrong decision, Rivera took the ball out of the hands of his 6'6", 245-pound quarterback and asked his defense, which had been struggling all game long, to win the game (see video below).
2) In Week 8 at Chicago, the Panthers, up 13-7, had an opportunity to extend their lead to two possessions with a 50-yard field goal before halftime. Rivera inexplicably passed up the field goal attempt in favor of a Hail Mary, which fell incomplete. The Panthers would go on to lose 23-22.
3) In Week 8 at Chicago and Week 11 vs. Tampa Bay, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called aggressive games with positive results. The defense forced a combined six turnovers and seven sacks between those two games. However, McDermott chose to abandon the aggressive style and drop into soft zone late in the game, conceding wide open underneath passes. The Bears drove 55 yards in 2:27 to kick the game-winning 41-yard field goal, while the Bucs drove 80 yards in the final 1:02 to score a touchdown, convert the two-point try and force overtime. In overtime, Tampa won the coin toss and drove 80 yards again for the winning touchdown.
So, here we are again: The Panthers, in an otherwise disappointing year, were able to generate some confidence heading into the offseason by hitting their stride over the final six weeks of the schedule.
Should we buy this string of performances as growth by the players, and, more importantly, by the coaching staff?
Is it a sign that this team is ready to perform at a high level from the get-go – when the pressure is on and the games are consequential?
Or, is this hot streak nothing more than a few meaningless wins against a handful of subpar opponents?
Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice, shame on me.
I bought into the hype when the Panthers finished hot last year.
I won't do it again.
I'm not confident that he can provide that extra edge needed to win close games against top-tier competition.
I'm not confident he can get his team to play at a high level every single week.
Nonetheless, it's clear that the players want Rivera leading them out of the tunnel on gameday. Instead of quitting like the Lions and Eagles, the Panthers played their tails off every Sunday. That speaks volumes about the respect they have for their head coach.
I'm also a believer in consistency.
It's easy to forget that just two years ago, the Panthers, at 2-14, were the NFL's worst team. It would be unrealistic to expect Rivera to piece everything back together overnight.
Not to mention, Cam Newton is finally regaining his confidence and becoming comfortable in Chudzinski's system. A coaching change is certainly not the best thing for his development as a third-year quarterback.
Despite a healthy dose of skepticism, I'm in favor of bringing back Rivera for one more "playoffs or bust" year.
After all, third time's a charm, right?
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