While several of his coaching colleagues were losing their jobs Monday, Carolina coach Ron Rivera was enjoying his.
The Panthers third-year coach stood at a podium at Bank of America Stadium explaining the bye week plans and going over the preparations for the franchises first playoff game since 2008.
Rivera acknowledged what was going on in other NFL cities, saying he sympathized with three of his friends who were fired Tampa Bays Greg Schiano, Minnesotas Leslie Frazier and Clevelands Rob Chudzinski, the Panthers offensive coordinator in Riveras first two seasons.
You feel for those guys because its tough, Rivera said. Its a tough business. We all understand that.
Three months ago, more than a couple of NFL observers had Rivera in the hot seat category after the Panthers 1-3 start. There was widespread speculation that Rivera might not make it to the final year of his four-year deal.
Then the Panthers started winning, and aside from a hiccup in New Orleans never stopped.
Rivera, who was 13-19 after his first two seasons, said he saw it coming all along.
Its where I believed and envisioned we would be, Rivera said. I talked to players when I first got the job and talked about where I believed we could be. I believed we could win it all, we could win the Super Bowl.
The Panthers (12-4) need three more wins to realize Riveras Super Bowl goal. They will wait to see how the wild-card weekend shakes out before learning who theyll host Jan. 12 in the divisional round.
The bye means an extra week to heal for the teams three injured starters receiver Steve Smith (knee), running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf).
The Panthers got a glimpse of what life without Smith, 34, might look like Sunday in the 21-20 win at Atlanta. It wasnt pretty.
Carolina finished with 149 passing yards half of which came on two catches by running back DeAngelo Williams.
The wide receiver trio of Brandon LaFell, Domenik Hixon and Ted Ginn Jr. combined for four receptions for 22 yards. LaFell, the No. 1 receiver in Smiths absence, was targeted five times and had no catches.
It did illustrate what a veteran No. 1 receiver does for you, Rivera said. Itll be good to have him back out there.
Smith, who sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against New Orleans on Dec. 22, has not said with certainty that hell be back for the divisional-round game against either Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco.
Smith said he would not have been able to play in a wild-card game this weekend.
The longer the better. But a short turnaround, you cant do it, Smith said. I feel like its coming along.
The passing game issues were not all the receivers fault. Quarterback Cam Newton completed 15 of 27 passes, was intercepted once and missed high on several throws a persistent problem for Newton.
But neither Rivera nor offensive coordinator Mike Shula seemed alarmed.
Some of it had to do with throwing the ball. Great reads, great decisions and the ball came out high a couple of times, Rivera said. If we can bring those down, the drives continue and who knows what could happen.
Said Shula: We had some missed opportunities. I call them drive-stoppers.
Its not groundbreaking what we have to do to get it fixed. Were just a little bit off, probably more so in the pass game than the run game.
LaFell had one pass go off his hands, and a couple of others were just beyond his reach. Since Smith was hurt in the first quarter of the Saints game, LaFell has one catch for 13 yards.
Hes putting himself in position to be targeted. Youd like to see him make a couple of those plays, Rivera said. One was a chance he had, the others were a little high. But youre in that (No. 1 receiver) spot, and people are going to pay a little more attention to you as far as the coverage is concerned. Youve got to give (the Falcons) a little bit of credit on what they did to take away Brandon.
The Panthers team-record nine sacks against quarterback Matt Ryan and Newtons ability to make plays with his feet helped them overcome the passing woes and clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye.
The Panthers are the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and could host the NFC Championship Game if No. 1 Seattle were to lose.
Even after a lackluster loss at Arizona left the Panthers 1-3 in early October, Rivera said he never had any doubts.
I always felt I was going to be right where I am, he said.
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