Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers playoff strategy: Don’t lose their cool

The abridged version of the Carolina Panthers’ playoff defeat to San Francisco last season:

Ron Rivera lost his cool, a couple of his defensive backs lost their composure and the Panthers lost the game.

One built-in benefit to the Panthers’ first back-to-back playoff berths in the history is they’re no longer postseason neophytes and should know what to do – and what not to do – Saturday when they meet Arizona in a NFC wild-card game at Bank of America Stadium.

That includes Rivera, who readily admits he set the wrong tone by getting on the officials early in the 23-10 loss last January in the divisional round.

Live and learn, according to Rivera. He didn’t like the way the game was being officiated early, and let the refs know about it.

“I lost focus for almost a quarter. I was upset. I didn’t think the game was being called fairly,” Rivera said Monday. “That’s my fault. At that point I’ve got to move on to the next detail.”

He said his actions played a role in the unnecessary roughness flags that were called on safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and led to field goals on San Francisco’s first two possessions.

“I can’t get caught up in that, because the players feed off that. I had a bunch of negative energy and the players started buying into it,” Rivera said. “We saw Captain Munnerlyn get into it. We saw Mike Mitchell get into it. They saw me get into it.

“I think more than anything else, we’ve been through it. We understand it and we’re going to guard against it. We’re going to work toward taking care of the little details that we can control, and that’s how we play.”

After the Niners eliminated Carolina last season, former San Francisco safety Donte Whitner made light of the Panthers’ playoff inexperience.

“This is not our first time. We were not excited. We didn’t have (rapper) Flo Rida coming in and playing at halftime and all those different things,” Whitner said. “Because we expected to be here. We really felt like it was another game to us. I don’t know if it was their Super Bowl, but it was another game to us.”

Despite makeovers at wide receiver and in the secondary during the offseason, the Panthers’ 53-man roster includes 32 players who were part of the 2013 playoff team.

There are five players remaining from the 2008 team that lost in the divisional round to Arizona. The group includes Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, who said merely making the playoffs is not good enough.

“I think there’s a renewed focus in this group, given our past and not taking care of business before. I think that’s kind of the focus, especially with a lot of the older guys that have been here,” said Kalil, in his eighth season. “I know for myself that’s what I’m going to do this week – make sure we’re razor sharp all week long and get this win.”

The Panthers (7-8-1) joined the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9) as the only teams to win their divisions with losing records since the NFL’s 2002 realignment.

The Panthers were 3-8-1 after their sixth straight loss Nov. 30 at Minnesota but rallied to win their final four and become the first repeat champion in the NFC South.

“We’ve been in playoff mode for a long time, we really have, especially these last four weeks,” Rivera said. “As we went through each week, each week was truly a do-or-die situation.”

Rivera said he’s glad the Panthers are playing this week rather than getting a week off – and not only because of his 0-5 record coming off a bye (including the playoff loss to San Francisco) during his four seasons in Carolina.

“I think being able to carry momentum into week by week is a lot better than – all of a sudden, you’ve got to pause and take a breath and your mind wanders a little bit,” Rivera said. “It’s hard to maintain that, especially when you know you’ve got a break.”

While the Panthers enter the postseason on a roll, the Cardinals (11-5) lost four of their past six. Once the favorite for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, Arizona will have to fly across the country after finishing second behind Seattle in the West.

The Cardinals are down to third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley after injuries to starter Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton, who injured ligaments in his right knee against St. Louis on Dec. 11 and had arthroscopic surgery last week after his knee became infected and swollen.

Arizona coach Bruce Arians told reporters Monday the Cardinals have their “fingers crossed” that Stanton will be ready to play Saturday.

But getting caught up in which quarterback plays for Arizona would run counter to the approach Rivera plans to take in his second trip to the playoffs as a head coach.

“The biggest thing I’ve been preaching to the players is take care of the little details, take care of the details you can control,” he said. “One of the things we can’t control obviously is what happens with the referees, what happens with the other team, what happens with the fans. Those things are out of our control.

“So we take care of our business, take care of our little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.”