When Carolina traveled to Minnesota in Week 6 last year, some observers thought Panthers coach Ron Rivera might have been coaching to keep his job.
The Panthers were off to another slow start under Rivera and took a 1-3 record into the Metrodome.
But with two successful fourth-down calls on the Panthers’ first offensive drive, the legend of “Riverboat Ron” was born. The Panthers rolled to a 35-10 win that helped save Rivera’s job and the season.
Carolina won 11 of its final 12 regular-season games to end a four-year playoff drought. The turnaround and postseason berth brought Rivera a three-year contract extension in January, so there are no questions about his job security as the Panthers (3-7-1) prepare to face the Vikings (4-7) in Minneapolis on Sunday.
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But there are plenty of questions about the state of Rivera’s team, which is mired in a six-game winless streak since its last victory Oct. 5 against Chicago. Remarkably, the Panthers are still in contention in the NFC South, a division in which every team has a losing record.
Panthers players are hoping the trip to the Twin Cities can spark another surge and possible playoff appearance.
“It was one of those games last year that we needed to win, and we did,” fullback Mike Tolbert said Monday. “We’re in the same situation. We need this one. We can’t get a streak started without the first one. We need to go out and put a good game together.”
After his players returned Monday from a five-day break during the bye week, Rivera reminded them that the 2013 victory at Minnesota was the start of something good.
“We talked about last time playing Minnesota was a good opportunity for us to get things rolling. We played well and we started playing well from that point on. So we’ll see how it goes,” Rivera said. “A big part of it obviously is really just us. Doing the things we need to do and doing the things we’re capable of doing.”
Rivera’s go-for-broke approach last season flew in the face of the conservative philosophy he developed over 14 years as a defensive assistant. But he recognized the confidence going for it on fourth down instilled in his players, beginning on the opening series at Minnesota when the Panthers converted a pair of fourth-and-1s.
Tolbert ran for 2 yards on the first fourth-down call before Cam Newton hit Steve Smith for a 2-yard touchdown on fourth down to cap a 12-minute, 57-second scoring drive that is the longest in team history.
Rivera has spoken about playing and coaching with more urgency in recent weeks. But twice in end-of-game situations during the winless streak he’s played for a field goal rather than go for a touchdown – during a 37-all tie at Cincinnati in Week 6 and in the fourth quarter of a 19-17 loss to Atlanta on Nov. 16.
Carolina was third in the league with a 77 percent (10 of 13) conversion rate on fourth downs in 2013. This year the Panthers are tied for fourth, converting 62.5 percent (5 of 8) of their fourth downs.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said the Panthers’ 22nd-ranked offense hasn’t been consistent enough this season, regardless of down.
“I don’t think it’s been any play-calling. I don’t think it’s been any game-situation calls, like a fourth-and-1, or going for it versus kicking it,” Kalil said. “I just think we haven’t played good enough football to help our team win.”
Added Tolbert: “We’ve been in late drives having to go get a touchdown, or we’ve been down big and we’re just pretty much fighting to save face. But we haven’t been in situations where (Rivera) has had to make a critical call.”
The Panthers will try to break their winless streak against a Vikings team that is 2-1 against NFC South opponents this season, beating Atlanta and Tampa Bay and losing to New Orleans.
Despite playing without All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, who has missed all but the opening game after his child abuse indictment, the Vikings have pieced together a decent rushing attack behind Jerick McKinnon, who has rushed for 538 yards and nearly 5 yards a carry.
Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been sacked 22 times behind an offensive line that lost right tackle Phil Loadholt to a season-ending pectoral injury in Sunday’s loss to Green Bay.
Rivera said the Panthers have to worry about fixing their own problems. He and his staff spent part of the bye week self-scouting and seeking ways to improve.
“We’re past being a young team. We’re past being different players (than 2013),” Rivera said. “We’ve played together for over half the season, so we should know. We should understand. We should be better.”
Tolbert, activated last week after missing eight games with a leg injury, scored two touchdowns against the Vikings last season and said he has good memories of the game. But the big back said the focus is on figuring out how to finish.
“We’ve been playing OK football for the past few weeks. But we haven’t done enough. We’ve been good enough to get beat,” he said. “Now we have to play to the end of the game and finish out. Put it all together and win a football game one at a time.”