Carolina Panthers

Playoffs? Panthers coach Ron Rivera optimistic after staycation, self-scouting during bye

Think the Carolina Panthers are out of the NFC South race? Hold on, head coach Ron Rivera, right, says. He remains optimistic after a bye-week staycation to self-scout his team.
Think the Carolina Panthers are out of the NFC South race? Hold on, head coach Ron Rivera, right, says. He remains optimistic after a bye-week staycation to self-scout his team. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera cut out of the Carrie Underwood concert early Sunday night so he could catch the end of the second half of the Seahawks-Cardinals.

“It was good,” Rivera said of the concert. “It was loud, though. I’m a little bit of a fuddy duddy.”

While Rivera opted for a staycation during the bye week, many of his players traveled to their former schools and more exotic locales to get away from the stench of a 1-5 start.

If the idea was to take five days away from football and come back feeling refreshed and energized, Rivera was Exhibit A.

He might have morphed from Riverboat Ron into Elmer Fudd at some point over the past three years, but Rivera hasn’t lost his positive outlook.

Asked Monday if he believes the Panthers can make the playoffs, Rivera said: “Oh yeah, absolutely. Why not? We’ve still got 10 games left. We take care of business, do our job, play hard and you just never know.”

The Panthers, whose only win was five weeks ago against San Francisco, managed to gain ground on division-leading Atlanta during the bye. The Falcons (4-3) fell to San Diego 33-30 in overtime to lose for the second week in a row.

Besides voting early and judging a chili competition, Rivera also kept close tabs on the NFC South during his free weekend. While Tampa Bay (3-3) beat San Francisco, New Orleans (2-4) lost at Kansas City.

Rivera made another reference Monday to 2014, when the Panthers won the South despite a two-month winless streak and a 7-8-1 record.

“You look at what happened on Sunday – two teams in our division lose. Tampa had some success out west. But still ... for where we are, we’re right in the mix,” Rivera said. “That’s the way you’ve got to look at it. You’ve just got to keep believing you’ve got an opportunity. You never know. It may all come back to us.”

There is still, of course, the matter of winning a game.

Rivera and his assistant coaches spent part of the bye week self-scouting to see what they can do better over the final 10 games. Rivera didn’t reveal the findings, but cornerback Robert McClain said creating more takeaways was stressed heavily in the defensive meeting room.

The Panthers led the NFL in takeaways and turnover margin during their Super Bowl season. This year Carolina is tied for 16th with eight takeaways in six games and is next-to-last with a minus-8 turnover margin.

McClain is among a group of reinforcements returning to a secondary that was shredded by Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (503 passing yards) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (465 yards) in a 15-day span.

McClain was in Charlotte with a hamstring injury watching the 41-38 loss at New Orleans on Oct. 16. He says it was the first time he’s missed a game because of injury in his life.

But McClain and rookie cornerback James Bradberry both practiced Monday and expect to play in Sunday’s game against Arizona (3-3-1). Bradberry, the second-round pick from Sanford, missed two games after getting turf toe in the first quarter against Atlanta in Week 4.

“I’m still trying to get my conditioning up because I’ve been gone for a while,” Bradberry said after Monday’s practice. “But it felt good.”

Nickel back Leonard Johnson also continues to practice in his attempt to come back from Achilles surgery in March. Johnson, a former Buccaneers nickel, remains on the non-football injury list but could be activated before Sunday’s game against Arizona.

McClain didn’t go anywhere during the bye, staying in Charlotte to make sure his hamstring was healthy. McClain says the time to get moving is now.

“We have to pick it up the rest of the season,” he said. “If we want to win the games, we have to be hard on ourselves and we have to execute every play.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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