- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera admittedly was hard on his players at halftime of Sunday's 20-16 victory over Miami, but not nearly as hard as they were on each other.
It wasn't just the normal suspects, such as wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross, that stood up and spoke their mind with the Panthers trailing 16-6. It was center Ryan Kalil and defensive end Greg Hardy, those that usually hang in the background and let the more boisterous talk, that stood out.
So if you're looking for a reason why the Panthers have gone from a team that two weeks into the season was 2-14 in games decided by seven points or less under Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton -- an NFL-worst 0-6 in games decided by four points or less since 2011 -- to one that has won three straight, start here.
"There were some things that were really interesting in that locker room at halftime,'' Rivera said Monday without giving specifics. "Guys said things and challenged each other. It was great to see these guys take ownership.
"Part of coming together as a team is not necessarily having to rely on just one leader. It's relying on a group of men that can come together and take ownership of it. That's part of the maturing process that we've gone through.''
It didn't just happen in the group meeting. It happened in the offensive and defense meetings, as in cornerback Captain Munnerlyn taking responsibility for allowing two long receptions by Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace, a 53-yarder that went for a touchdown and a 57-yarder that set up a field goal.
The Panthers responded with a 14-0 second-half in which they still needed a miracle fourth-and-10 completion with 2:33 left and a 1-yard touchdown pass from Newton to tight end Greg Olsen with 43 seconds left to win.
"It's no longer everybody looking to one guy,'' Rivera said. "Who's that one guy? Now you're starting to see the different guys. You see the Kalils. You see the Greg Hardys. That's important. Now that responsibility is not just one person.''
Rivera appreciated that more after he had time to step back from the tension that enveloped Sunday's game until the final play. He admittedly was harder on players than he might normally have been after looking at tape and seeing how hard they played in the first half.
Yes, he still was upset with the way Wallace didn't have over the top coverage on the first-half plays, as well as the next-to-last play of the game in which he got behind safety Mike Mitchell near the goal line with 10 seconds left.
"I was disappointed,'' Rivera said.
That he was disappointed speaks volumes about what he expects from the Panthers (8-3) as they enter the stretch run with NFC South title, playoff and even Super Bowl aspirations.
"It means the expectations and what I expect and what our level of expectation should be [has changed],'' Rivera said.
That doesn't mean Rivera won't experiment with different combinations in the secondary if that's what it takes to prevent breakdowns that could have prevented the winning streak from reaching seven.
"We're going to continue to challenge those guys,'' he said without mentioning names. "We're going to play the best combination of players out there. We're going to put the guys that are working hard and doing things the right way out on the football field and give them a chance to play.''
Rivera also is going to continue to be aggressive. His fourth-and-10 gamble that turned into a 19-yard completion to Smith shows just how much of a roll the Panthers are on.
Since 2001, on fourth and 10 from a team's own territory, only 44 of 133 plays (33.1 percent) have been successful.
Rivera is willing to take those chances because of the leadership he saw at halftime and the confidence level he sees growing on the sideline each week.
"There's a confident level you should win games,'' he said. "You're not supposed to win games, but something happens and all of a sudden there is a confidence we can do these things, we can make things happen, we can make plays when we need them.''
Injury update: Defensive end Charles Johnson, who missed Sunday's game with a sprained knee, will be re-evaluated on Wednesday. Rivera is optimistic he will be available this week for Tampa Bay.
Linebacker Thomas Davis suffered a dislocated finger that broke the skin, but that won't prevent him from playing. Running back Mike Tolbert had soreness in his leg that Rivera didn't appear concerned about.