NFC South: 2013 Week 6 CAR at MIN

Ron Rivera taking chances, winning

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
8:09
PM ET
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Riverboat Rivera.

Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

By nature, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is conservative. It goes against everything he's always believed as a former linebacker and defensive coordinator to take gambles.

He was criticized unmercifully by the media and fans after a 24-23 loss at Buffalo in Week 2 for kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Bills' 21-yard line with a 20-17 lead and 1:42 remaining.

At that time, only one of the other 31 NFL teams had gone for it on fourth down less than Carolina since Rivera took over in 2011. That was the coach Rivera replaced, Denver's John Fox.

But ever since then, it seems, Rivera has gone for it almost every time there's been a critical fourth-and-1 call. He did it twice on the first drive of Sunday's 35-10 victory against the Minnesota Vikings.

So maybe he's changing his stripes.

"Well, it's kind of what we're going to do and we're going to do the best we can to make things happen,'' Rivera said. "These guys bought into it.''

No, Rivera bought into it. He understands the importance of scoring touchdowns instead of field goals for the psyche of his offense. It shows that side of the ball confidence they can make it, and the defense confidence they can stop the opponent if the offense comes up short.

Having said that, Rivera made the right call not to go for it at Buffalo. He went with the odds of making a rookie quarterback playing in his second game drive 80 yards for a touchdown against a top -- albeit injured -- defense.

In most cases, he wins.

Rivera also made the right call at the Metrodome on Sunday. It was scoreless and if either of the calls failed there were three and a half quarters to make up for it.

He also had the luxury of a defense that already had intercepted Matt Cassel once, that has played well throughout the season.

So he took a chance. He gambled.

And won. Twice.

First running back Mike Tolbert gained two yards on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32. Then quarterback Cam Newton completed a touchdown pass to wide receiver Steve Smith on fourth-and-1 from the 2.

It set the tone for the offense, and demoralized the Vikings.

"It means a lot,'' Newton said. "Being in a hostile environment and knowing that we need an edge in this game, we went for it. For him to trust us means a lot and it speaks volumes.''

That everyone understands Rivera's conservative mindset made it mean even more.

"I think that he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree, and giving the whole team confidence with him,'' Newton said.

You could feel that confidence afterwards.

"It's awesome and it's great,'' Smith said.

Said safety Quintin Mikell, "That's what you have to do in times like that when you have your backs against the wall. If we didn't get it, hey, the defense was going to step up and make a play.''

Riverboat Rivera. It may stick.

Newton never looked more comfortable

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
7:16
PM ET
Cam Newton AP Photo/Jim MoneCam Newton against the Minnesota Vikings had the best passing day statistically of his career.
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was methodical, making sure his cuff links were turned the right way and the knot on his tie was perfectly straight, as he dressed in front of his locker following Sunday's 35-10 victory against the Minnesota Vikings.

He was even more methodical in picking apart the Vikings.

Statistically, it was the best passing performance of his NFL career -- 20-for-26 for 242 yards and three touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 143.4. He also ran for a touchdown.

There hasn't been a time this season, maybe since he was selected with the first pick of the 2011 draft, that he looked more comfortable in the pocket.

"I wouldn't say that,'' Newton deadpanned.

He didn't offer a game in which he was more comfortable, though, so the evidence is hard to deny.

And while much focus will be placed on his first-half efficiency -- 10-for-14 for 85 yards and two touchdowns -- he's had good first halves throughout this season.

It's what Newton did in the third quarter that was most impressive. He connected with wide receiver Brandon LaFell for a 79-yard touchdown pass on the third play. He finished 8-for-9 for 134 yards, a passer rating of 155.8.

This from a quarterback who had completed only 50 percent of his second-half passes in Carolina's three losses.

"His focus and attention to detail on things all week,'' coach Ron Rivera said. "It's all part of the progress of him developing. He understands it and he's going to continue to work at it, and we'll continue to work as a group.''

Newton admitted on Wednesday he had to be more consistent. It was as if he had read statistics that noted since the start of 2012 he'd had only seven games with at least a 60 percent completion percentage, something 22 other quarterbacks had more of during that same time frame.

On this day he had a completion percentage of 79.6 percent, the second-highest of his career.

Mission accomplished in the consistency department?

"To a degree, I did,'' Newton said. "But it always has to be a constant though, and being thorough with my craft for a full four quarters and not just one half. With that in the back of my mind, I felt as if they whole offense played as consistent as we did the whole year up to this point.''

It began with Newton. He was sacked only once after being sacked seven times a week ago at Arizona because he got rid of the ball faster and made better decisions on running away from pressure.

He also got a lot of help from his receivers, who held onto balls that a week ago they dropped at a time when the Panthers could have taken charge.

The coaching staff helped too with an aggressive passing game to get Newton in an early rhythm, and by showing confidence in the team to gamble on fourth-and-one twice on Carolina's first series.

As tight end Greg Olsen reminded, it doesn't all begin or end with one player -- meaning Newton.

But when Newton plays with the type of methodical efficiency he did on Sunday, it makes all look good.

"With the way Cam is playing right now with some confidence is important,'' Rivera said. "We have to carry that on to next week. We can't have a good week, a bad week, a good week, a bad week.

"We have to be a consistent football team. That's the bottom line.''

Carolina focused on stopping Peterson

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
6:35
PM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell felt sympathy for what Adrian Peterson was going through with the death of Peterson's 2-year-old son.

Mitchell felt so much that he quoted a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11, to the Minnesota running back during the first drive of Sunday's 35-10 victory over the Vikings.

If you aren't familiar, it reads: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltThe Panthers limited Adrian Peterson to just 62 yards, the fewest he's had in a game this season.
Then Mitchell went out and had two interceptions and helped the league's third-ranked defense hold the league's best back to a season-low 62 yards, his lowest total since the second game last season.

And 31 of those yards came on one run after the game was well out of hand.

So while sympathetic to Peterson, the Panthers weren't generous. They couldn't be, and coach Ron Rivera let them know that during a Saturday night team meeting in which he reminded them of their job.

"The NFL is a fraternity," Mitchell said. "So when one guy has a tragedy like that, we all kind of feel it in a way. Coach Rivera addressed that. [He said] at the end of the day ... we still have our destiny. We still have our goals that we have to get accomplished.

"It's not that we're in any way disrespectful to Adrian. We felt that. We all feel that. ... But at the same time we came out here with the mindset we need to kick their butt to keep ourselves alive, our season alive."

The Panthers (2-3) did that, and once again it was the defense that set the tone with Mitchell's interception on Minnesota's opening drive.

They held the Vikings to 290 yards of total offense. They didn't surrender a touchdown until Matt Cassel connected on 23-yard pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph with a minute remaining and most of the home fans already in the parking lot.

It all began with shutting down Peterson, whose son died on Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D., from an alleged aggravated assault.

"It was right on time," Mitchell said of Rivera's speech. "It was just what we needed. He's a great leader, and that's what great leaders do. You saw by the way we played that's what we needed to hear."

The Panthers were relentless. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott found countless ways to get eight players at the line to shut Peterson down without giving up too much in the secondary.

"Listen," said linebacker Thomas Davis, who had two sacks. "He made the decision to play on this game. For us, it was all about going out and competing and playing whoever was on the field. That was a decision [Peterson] had to make going through this situation. He decided to play, so we played as well."

That didn't mean they didn't care.

"As a player and as a father, if something like that was to happen to one of my kids I couldn't imagine playing in a football game," Davis said. "Some way, he found the will to go out and play. For me as a father, I can't imagine going through something like that."

That's why Rivera made the speech. He wanted to make sure there were no distractions, that the Panthers were aware the Vikings (1-4) could rally around Peterson as the Kansas City Chiefs did last season after linebacker Jovan Belcher shot himself in the head at the team's training facility the day before they faced Carolina.

The Chiefs, who had lost 10 of their first 11 games, won that game 27-21.

"It was more or less a speech as fathers, as men, we all feel for him," Davis said of Peterson. "But at the same time the game is going to played, and we've got to go out and play. That's what we had to do."

That's what they did.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
3:59
PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 35-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings:

What it means: This means the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton are really good at taking advantage of bad defenses (first beating the Giants 38-0, and now beating the No. 30 Vikings). It also means the Panthers (2-3) have a chance to improve to .500 next week, something they haven't been after six games in more than four seasons. It may even mean that coach Ron Rivera is right when he says this team is close to playing winning football. The key? Can Carolina do it consistently? Stay tuned.

Stock watch: Newton talked about needing to be more consistent. On Sunday, he put action behind his words to the tune of 20-for-26 for 242 yards and three touchdowns and a career-best passer rating of 143.4. His previous best was 142.4 in 2011 against Tampa Bay. Newton started fast, going 10-for-14 for 85 yards and two touchdowns. But more impressive was how he started the second half, where he had been inconsistent in Carolina's three losses. He was 8-for-9 for 134 yards and a touchdown (155.6 rating).

Stock watch II: Linebacker Thomas Davis had one sack in the first four games. He had two on Sunday.

Riverboat gambler: Rivera took a lot of heat when he didn't gamble on fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 20 in Week 2. He's been fearless since, going for it five times and converting on three of them. Going for it was key in giving the Panthers a 7-0 lead on their first drive Sunday. They converted twice, including a 2-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith.

No relief for A.P.: It was a heartbreaking week off the field for Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, whose 2-year-old son died Friday. On Sunday, Carolina's defense held Petersonto 28 yards on seven carries in the first half. He broke a 31-yarder in the third quarter, but otherwise was kept in check.

Stewart watch: Running back Jonathan Stewart is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list after this game, and by coincidence the Panthers haven't put guard Amini Silatolu (ACL) on injured reserve yet. Don't be surprised if Stewart takes that spot this week.

What's next: The Panthers return home after consecutive road games to face the St. Louis Rams. Carolina leads the series 11-8 and has won four of the past five times the teams have met.

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