It’s fourth-and-7 at his own 36 and his team is trailing by three with just over two minutes remaining in the game.
With two timeouts, the 2-minute warning and one of the league’s best defenses, logic told this coach to punt it away and hope to get the ball back with around a minute left.
That is exactly what Carolina’s Ron Rivera elected to do against the New Orleans last week. As Kenny Rogers once sang, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em” and Rivera decided it was best play another hand.
He was right because the defense, Cam Newton and an unlikely hero, Domenik Hixon, pushed the Panthers into the postseason and a win away from clinching a first-round bye and possibly home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Not a bad turn of events from a Week 2 head-scratching loss when the Panthers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Rivera was facing a fourth-and-1 at the Buffalo 21 with 1:42 left in the game and leading by three. The Bills burned all of their timeouts on the previous three plays, meaning a first down would allow the Panthers to run out of the clock.
Rivera mulled the options in his mind and elected to go for the 39-yard field goal and go up by six points. If this was the first quarter, there would be little argument for not attempting the field goal. In this situation, there were too many negatives for getting the three points which out-weighed the positives and it would come back to haunt Rivera.
When E.J. Manuel found Steve Johnson for the game-winning touchdown with two seconds remaining on the scoreboard at Ralph Wilson Stadium, many thought Rivera might be placed in a barrel and tossed over Niagara Falls.
He wasn’t and it was a good thing for Panther Nation.
The loss to Buffalo and Arizona a few weeks later had Carolina off to a 1-3 start and planted Rivera firmly in the hot seat. Things were getting so bad, fans started to turn on the face of the franchise — Newton. The offense had scored 74 points in the first four contests, an average of 18.5 points a game. The problem was 38 of those came in a shutout win over a really bad New York Giants team.
No one knows what general manager Dave Gettleman and Rivera talked about during the days leading up to the game with the Minnesota Vikings, but whatever it was worked.
Big time. Since then the Panthers have won 10 out of their last 11 games.
Rivera looked like a gambler in Las Vegas playing with house money against the Vikings, taking chances and earning the moniker “Riverboat Ron.” Rivera went for two fourth-and-1 plays against Minnesota. Not in the game, but on the first drive.
Suddenly fourth-and-1 became a “we are going-for-it” down for Rivera and his team.
Not really, but close enough.
In the 10 games since pounding the Vikings, the Panthers have faced a fourth-and-1 eight times. Rivera elected to punt twice and kick a field goal once. The other five times? Carolina scored four touchdowns and was going in for another when time expired in its second matchup with Tampa Bay.
Now that Rivera has “flipped” his thought process, the Panthers have taken off and could be the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. But only if Rivera continues down this path.
If Rivera becomes passive once again, it could be a quick exit from the playoffs for the likely Coach of the Year and his team.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.