Panthers' Critics Ignore One Obvious Fact in Carolina's Favor

The 15-1 Carolina Panthers have been disrespected all season long and make excuses for their record: NFL's easiest schedule. Bad receiver group. Giving up leads and/or just plain being lucky. Well, I hope at least Seattle fans will keep the lid on the "being lucky" part since the only reason they even get to make the trip to Charlotte is because of a botched 27-yd FG by the Minnesota Vikings. The Carolina Panthers have the one thing no other team has, however.

Ron Rivera.

He was a player when the Chicago Bears went 15-1 and won the Super Bowl. In short, he's been there, done that, and has the ring to show for it.

There is no way on Earth to possibly underestimate the value of having a man like Ron Rivera guiding a team that is in the situation the Carolina Panthers are in right now. His steady hand on the pulse of the team will keep them focused and not totally freaking out over the situation and past seasons games against Seattle, although I'm betting they're watching a ton of film on them.

The "experts" - probably the same ones who picked the 3-7 Cowboys to beat the 10-0 Panthers - still don't think the Panthers are the best team in the NFL, citing many of the things (and more) that I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Some arguments are valid about the match-ups or how "hot" Russell Wilson has been in the second half of the season. I'm just amazed that nobody seems to consider the intangibles coach Rivera brings to the table and the effect his mere presence has on each and every player on the team.

The players want rings. That's their goal. They're also well aware of Rivera's participation on that 1985-86 Chicago Bears Super Bowl winning team as a middle linebacker. When he wants to make a point with the team, they'll be hanging on every word of it because of their desire to finally be recognized as the best, and that begins with defeating the Seattle Seahawks.

Rivera's path as a player isn't something other coaches can hang their hats on. He has been in his players' collective shoes and they know it. He and his team won, and that carries enormous weight. I think they'll go into the game right on top of things and being the most opportunistic team in the NFL in terms of turnover margin - another oft-ignored inconvenient truth - should give them an early advantage despite the things the "experts" say. 

Rivera's current defense may not be quite as dominant as that of the 1985 Bears, but perhaps the 2000 Ravens team (2001? anyway) that won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer could compare. It was all defense, and Rivera's QB at the time was Jim McMahon. Jim's career was more sizzle than substance, frankly, as his antics kept him a fleeting celebrity off the field.

Newton's a budding celebrity himself, but Rivera's past can help guide him along there, too. He's seen the pitfalls McMahon fell into and can be a bit of an informal guide or second father-figure to Newton. Cam undoubtedly spends a lot more time with Ron than with Cecil, after all. That's Cecil as in Cam's father, not as in my cat, Cecil. Just making sure you're awake here still.

What all these things mean is that Rivera is THE coach that can foresee a lot of the dangers or distractions that can come up or lie ahead and be prepared to avoid or ameliorate them. In terms of what that means to the team is something that cannot be measured but must be taken into consideration when honestly assessing the team and its chances. 

Considering his own personality and that of his coach back then, one fiery Mike Ditka, Rivera has the ability to filter out some of the more negative things coach Ditka may have said or done that didn't matter in the end because that defense was so historically dominant and could win a game on its own...which it did. They'd have won that game if New England had the ball the entire time.

The Panthers aren't that lucky, however. Yes, they do have an outstanding defense, but it's not a dominant one. The pass rush from both DE positions has been problematic lately and it's a strength of the Seahawks. 

Whatever the outcome, I would be very surprised to see either team come out flat. I think Rivera's team will punch Seattle in the mouth early at least once and the outcome will rest on how well the defense can handle the Baldwin/Lockett combo with Peanut Tillman and Bene Benwikere both being injured. There's only one Josh Norman to go around.

I'm thinking that Rivera is stressing exactly that to his team this week...coming out and getting an early lead. It sounds a bit cliche' but in this case, it's the truth. The reasoning is that the Panthers can then get on the ground even more than they already do and limit the number of possessions the Seattle offense gets.

Seattle's Pete Carroll is likely thinking and talking along those same lines, but Rivera doesn't have The Super Bowl Play Call 'o Death on his resume'.

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