The Carolina Panthers have played the Minnesota Vikings 12 times, and the teams have never met in the postseason.
But the past two games against the Vikings proved to be seminal moments for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the team’s turnaround under him.
Rivera’s decision to go for broke in a 2013 victory in Minneapolis earned him the “Riverboat Ron” nickname and started an eight-game winning streak that helped him keep his job.
It was a loss to the Vikings in freezing conditions two years ago that marked the rock-bottom point for the Panthers before they took off on a hot streak they’re still riding.
Some analysts are calling Sunday’s game pitting Minnesota (2-0) and Carolina (1-1) a possible preview of the NFC Championship Game.
But violent protests this week in Charlotte following the killing of a 43-year-old black man by a police officer prompted others to question whether the game should be moved or postponed.
Rivera, however, sees it as a chance for Charlotte to take another step toward a return to normalcy following a couple of nights of violence, vandalism and looting in the wake of the death of Keith Lamont Scott.
“I think it means a lot in terms of being able to get back to what’s normal, more so than anything else,” Rivera said Friday. “For me, it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re here for you guys. We’re here to help you distract and re-think some things and settle down.’”
Rivera said he liked hearing his players discussing issues of racial politics and the actions of police this week in the locker room.
But he’s also ready to get back to football.
The hot seat
Given the Panthers’ run of success and Rivera’s two NFL Coach of the Year awards, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t long ago that he was perceived to be on the hot seat.
The Panthers got off to a slow start in 2013 for the third time in Rivera’s first three seasons. They took a 1-3 record to Minnesota two weeks after NFL Network reported the Panthers had begun background work on coaching candidates, which general manager Dave Gettleman denied.
(Rivera revealed last year that owner Jerry Richardson once told him he would never fire him during a season.)
But Rivera decided before the Vikings game he should coach with more urgency. He wasted no time doing so, going for two fourth downs during a touchdown drive on the first series of a 35-10 victory.
The Panthers won 11 of their last 12 games that season, claiming the first of three consecutive NFC South titles.
Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who was on that Panthers team, said he could sense the tide was turning.
“You could see it. When I was there we went 12-4 my last year there (in 2103),” Munnerlyn said. “Coach Rivera did a great job rallying his troops and getting everybody together. He’s a great coach. All the guys had to do was buy into the system and buy into the things he’d like to do.”
A cold day
The Panthers’ trip to Minneapolis the following year was different on a number of levels – beginning with the location and the conditions.
With the Vikings’ new stadium under construction, the Nov. 30 game was played at the University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium. Temperature at kickoff was 12 degrees, the second-coldest game in Panthers’ history.
“Obviously that game was awful,” backup quarterback Derek Anderson said. “We all froze to death.”
Rivera, a Chicago Bears linebacker for nine seasons, didn’t love being outside in Minneapolis in November for four hours.
“It was absolutely miserable,” Rivera said. “I’m not a big fan of being cold anymore. I used to think it was a cool advantage when I was a Bear. Those days are long gone.”
The execution of the Panthers’ punt team was equally miserable. The Vikings blocked two first-half punts and returned both for touchdowns en route to 31-13 victory.
The loss extended Carolina’s winless streak to seven games – a two-month stretch that remarkably did not sink the Panthers’ playoff hopes in a putrid divisional race.
The turnaround begins
But lost amid the blocked punts and wind-burned faces that day were a couple of developments that would fuel the Panthers’ late-season run:
▪ After weeks of musical chairs along the offensive line, the Panthers made Mike Remmers the starter at right tackle, a spot he has kept ever since.
▪ Cornerback Antoine Cason and free safety Thomas DeCoud were benched in the second half in favor of rookies Bené Benwikere and Tre Boston, who were injured and/or backups during the Super Bowl season of 2015 but are starting again this year.
The Panthers cut Cason two days later, and DeCoud was an afterthought the rest of the season. The injection of youth – rookie wideout Philly Brown also was given a more prominent role – seemed to energize the Panthers.
The offensive line stability helped protect quarterback Cam Newton, who had taken a pounding during the winless streak.
“That group came together. Four of those five guys are still our starting offensive line,” Rivera said. “The following week we got it going and momentum built up and we just kept rolling. It was kind of a turning point.”
The next week in New Orleans, Benwikere intercepted Drew Brees in the first quarter, Newton threw for three touchdowns and the Panthers racked up 497 yards in a 41-10 victory.
They’ve scarcely lost since.
Carolina won its final four games in ’14 to claim the South with a 7-8-1 record, then beat Arizona in the wild-card round. Since that miserable day in Minnesota, the Panthers have won 20 of 22 regular-season games, including last season’s franchise-record 15-1 finish.
“From that point forward I think we just started rolling,” said Anderson, who beat Tampa Bay in Week 15 that season after Newton was injured in a wreck.
“I don’t think there was one thing. I don’t think we changed much going into it or after that game,” Anderson said. “We did some good things in that (Vikings) game. We just kind of set ourselves back with the early punt blocks.”
After he and his staff thawed out, Rivera knew there were some personnel moves that needed to be made. In addition to Cason, special teams regular Jason Williams was cut – fallout from the blocked punts.
And no matter their 3-8-1 record as they left Minneapolis, the Panthers forged ahead.
“In spite of all the things that were written about the season – it did start there (in Minnesota) – but it really did hinge on the way we were going to finish those last four,” Rivera said. “I thought the guys did a nice job. I think that signified them coming together.”
Fullback Mike Tolbert had been on injured reserve with a broken leg throughout the winless streak in 2014, but was activated for the Vikings game. Tolbert said the team closed ranks afterward and tried to block out the outside noise.
“We just had to come together and continue to play for each other and not worry about if the record’s 3-8-1 or how many games we’d won or lost,” Tolbert said. “Just go out and play football.”