Panthers coach Ron Rivera dramatically changed his stripes this season by deciding to go for more fourth downs.
On the heels of the biggest win in his three-year tenure at Carolina, “Riverboat Ron” now is changing his message to his team – if only slightly.
“It might just change from being relevant to being very relevant. That’s what we’re going to do,” Rivera said Monday. “If you’re winning, you’re relevant. People pay more attention to you, and I think deservedly so. Our guys have to continue to do the things they need to do to be relevant.”
If the rest of the country was sleeping on the Panthers, they have everyone’s attention after Sunday’s 10-9 win at San Francisco.
By taking down last season’s NFC champions, the Panthers (6-3) served notice they can win a big game on the road against a quality opponent. Carolina had not beaten a team with a winning record before defeating the 49ers (6-3), who had won five straight before Sunday.
“That is huge. We probably are going to have to see this team again in the playoffs very easily,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “They are a great team. I am just so thankful we came out here and played well defensively, and came out with the win.”
Rivera has been trumpeting a next-game-is-the-biggest approach, but it’s difficult to imagine a bigger game – at least outside of the NFC South – for the Panthers than next Monday night’s matchup with New England.
The Patriots (7-2) have been to five Super Bowls and won three with Bill Belichick as their coach and two-time league most valuable player Tom Brady as their quarterback. After turning over its receiving corps after the departures of Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead in free agency, it has taken Brady some time to click with his new receivers.
Hurt by dropped passes, Brady has a passer rating of 82.7, which ranks in the middle of the NFL pack and would be a career low over a full season.
But Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said Brady remains one of the league’s best quarterbacks.
“He’s an extremely smart football player. In the class of Peyton Manning, right next to him is Brady. They’ve won multiple Super Bowls,” McDermott said. “So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Belichick had similar praise for the Panthers, whose five-game winning streak is the franchise’s longest since the 2005 team won six in a row.
“Real solid team all the way around, playing very well right now. It will be a big challenge for us going down there on Monday night,” Belichick said. “I’m sure there will be a lot of energy in the stadium and we’ll have to match that. With the roll that they’re on, I’m sure they’ll be ready to go Monday night.”
Quarterback Cam Newton said the Panthers need the type of win they notched at San Francisco – a gritty, defensive effort in a low-scoring, physical game. The Panthers had scored at least 30 points in their previous five victories, winning by an average margin of 24 points.
“We won games where we put up 30-plus points and won handedly, but we haven’t had this type of win under our belt consistently,” Newton said. “The more we are in games like this one, we will get very comfortable in these types of situations.
“Even though we weren’t moving the ball offensively, it does wonders for you to come back off the field and see the defense with that look in their eyes like it doesn’t matter what you do, you will get another opportunity.”
The Panthers held the Niners to 151 yards and are responsible for two of the NFL’s top three defensive efforts this season in terms of yards allowed. The Seahawks gave up 135 yards during a 14-9 win at St. Louis in Week 8, while the Panthers held the Giants to 150 yards in a 38-0 victory in Week 3.
Those defensive performances have helped put the Panthers in the playoff picture for the first time since 2008. While Rivera seeks different stages of relevancy, his players have more concrete goals in mind.
“I thought it was big for us to get a big-time win to keep our dreams alive, what we’re trying to do, which is go to the playoffs and hopefully make a push for the Super Bowl,” free safety Mike Mitchell said. “That’s been our goal since Day 1, and I think we kept that dream alive.”
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