Most NFL coaches would rather discuss politics or religion than the playoffs – at least at midseason.
Former Colts coach Jim Mora will forever have a place in the annals of YouTube, thanks to his famously entertaining “Playoffs?” screed in 2001.
But Ron Rivera waded into the topic Monday when he was asked whether his third Panthers team was beginning to take on the look of a playoff club.
“Yes, it does,” he said. “It feels like a team that has an opportunity, has a chance to go forward and be better. We’re not anywhere (near) where we need to be. There’s a lot for us to do, a lot for us to learn.”
Rivera made it to the Super Bowl as a player with the 1985 Bears and made it back as Chicago’s defensive coordinator 21 years later. While he wasn’t comparing the Panthers (5-3) to either of those teams, Rivera didn’t shy away from the playoff talk when it came up Monday.
“I’m confident in who our guys are. And I’m an optimist,” Rivera said. “But the thing I want to stress is this is the next most important game we play because it’s the one we’re about, and that’s the 49ers.”
If the playoffs started this week, the Panthers would get the last of the six NFC playoff spots.
But the postseason doesn’t start this week. And of Carolina’s eight remaining games, five are against teams with winning records, starting Sunday at San Francisco (6-2).
A sixth team – Miami (4-4) – is at .500.
The five teams the Panthers have beaten – the New York Giants, Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta – have combined for an 8-33 record.
Before the season began, the Panthers had the league’s toughest schedule, based on their opponents’ combined winning percentage (.543) in 2012.
But at the midpoint of their season, the Panthers currently have the league’s worst strength of schedule ranking, at .343.
“You play who you’re supposed to play, and that’s the thing,” Rivera said. “You look at Atlanta. You can’t tell me they’re a 2-6 team. There’s a lot of good football players on that team, a lot of Pro Bowlers, all-pros, a future Hall of Famer (in tight end Tony Gonzalez). You play who you play.”
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said success in the NFL often is a week-to-week proposition.
“You look at teams and they’re good one week and the next week they’re getting blown out,” McDermott said. “Or they’re getting blown out one week and the next week they come back and they’re shutting people down.”
McDermott was an assistant in Philadelphia when the Eagles were a perennial playoff team under Andy Reid.
“What I know gets you in that position is if you play consistent football and you play well in the month of November and December,” McDermott said. “You win home games, you win division games. That’s the formula, really. We’re playing good football right now, and we’ve got a huge test this weekend against a good football team.”
The 49ers, who were off this past weekend, have won five games in a row by an average margin of 22.6 points.
San Francisco, which lost to Baltimore in the Super Bowl last season, is first in the league in rushing offense (153 yards a game) but last in passing (189.9).
“We’ll get a good indication as to where we are,” Rivera said. “They’re the defending NFC champs, played in the Super Bowl last year. So this will be a very good challenge for our guys.”
Rivera said that, like other successful teams he has been a part of, the Panthers have been getting contributions from unexpected players (see defensive tackle-turned-offensive-lineman Nate Chandler and cornerback Drayton Florence in Sunday’s 34-10 win against Atlanta).
They’ve also been getting breaks. Rivera pointed to wideout Brandon LaFell’s recovery of his own fumble against the Falcons as the kind of fortuitous play winning teams seem to get.
“Sometimes you also have to get the bounces,” Rivera said. “You’ve got to be lucky. We were lucky (Sunday), too. We had a situation where the ball rolled back to Brandon LaFell. We’ll take it.”
The Panthers’ four-game winning streak has them a game behind New Orleans (6-2) for first place in the NFC South. The teams don’t play until Week 14 in the first of two meetings in a 15-day span.
“It’s interesting how the schedule’s turning out. We play them twice in three weeks in December,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “All we can do is make those games important by winning the ones until then.”
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