A day after another demoralizing loss in which his team blew a fourth-quarter lead at Buffalo, Panthers coach Ron Rivera reminded his players Monday how close they’ve been to winning these close games.
It’s been a familiar refrain throughout Rivera’s three seasons in Carolina.
Third verse, same as the first.
“You talk about how close you are, and it’s time to get over the hump,” Rivera said of his message to his team. “We’ve done this before. We’ve been through this, and that’s the thing that’s disheartening. You’d like to believe that we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve learned from these things and now it’s about getting these things done.”
The statistics have been cited ad nauseam, but until the Panthers change their fate in close games, they bear repeating:
• With the last-second, 24-23 loss to Buffalo, Carolina now is 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Rivera.
• Since Rivera arrived before the 2011 season, the Panthers have lost 10 games in which they’ve led in the fourth quarter, tied with Philadelphia for the most during that span, according to STATS INC.
• The Panthers (0-2) have squandered a pair of fourth-quarter leads already this season, making them statistical long shots for a playoff berth and further clouding Rivera’s future in Charlotte.
Rivera, who is 13-21 in his first head coaching job, waited nearly a week after the 2012 season before owner Jerry Richardson told him he would be retained. Rivera said Monday he had not heard from Richardson since the loss to the Bills.
Rivera deflected questions about his future, saying the focus was on the New York Giants, who come to Charlotte on Sunday in search of their first win.
“They’re 0-2 as well,” Rivera said. “They’re as desperate as we are.”
Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, teams that started 0-2 have made the playoffs 11.6 percent of the time.
But Panthers first-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula said the Panthers are better than their record indicates.
“We’re obviously not perfect. But in my opinion, we don’t deserve to be 0-2,” Shula said. “We should be correcting these mistakes – showing the good and the bad – but doing it after two wins. We’ve just to keep grinding away.’”
“Our guys have been great,” Shula added. “The effort they’ve been giving and the way our guys have shown –even from early in training camp – the belief they have in each other’s been great. This is testing you, but it’s been great.”
Rivera’s end-of-game management at Buffalo has been questioned after he elected for a field goal that put the Panthers up 23-17, rather than go for a fourth-and-1 from the Bills’ 21.
Less has been made about Shula’s call the play before – a rush for fullback Mike Tolbert on third-and-5 from the Bills’ 25 with 1:48 left. Shula called for a three-receiver set – an alignment the Panthers used earlier in the game on a running play for quarterback Cam Newton.
Left guard Amini Silatolu and tight end Greg Olsen pulled on the play, which bogged down when Buffalo defenders cut the Panthers’ blockers. Tolbert’s 4-yard gain was a yard short of the first down, and Rivera sent Graham Gano in for a 39-yard field goal.
“We came up a yard short of running the clock out. We were running the ball beautifully on that drive,” Shula said. “They actually cut our guys in the hole and kind of wadded things up, so there wasn’t quite as much running (room).”
The Panthers wasted opportunities to put the game away on their previous two drives after their defense forced Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel into two turnovers. Despite starting on Buffalo’s 16 and 26, the Panthers settled for field goals both times.
“That’s not good enough on our part. Our defense did a great job getting us the ball,” Shula said. “If we get just one of those in there, we win the game.”
Instead, the Bills took over at their 20 following Gano’s third field goal and promptly drove 80 yards, taking advantage of the Panthers’ injury-depleted secondary on Manuel’s game-winning, 2-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with two seconds left.
It left the Panthers searching for answers that have eluded them since Rivera arrived in town.
“There’s no magic about it,” center Ryan Kalil said. “We just have to do a better job of finishing the games. And we can get that done. We’ve got to go back to work and figure out how to do it.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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