(MONDAY UPDATE: Rivera had an 11 a.m. news conference with the media but did not know what his future held. He said he hoped to keep his job and that he would be meeting with owner Jerry Richardson soon to determine what his and the team's future will be. He did not sound particularly confident. Players leaving the stadium who were interviewed expressed pretty much unanimous support for the current coaching staff).
That should be enough.
Ron Rivera's Panthers won the final four games of their season, finishing a respectable 7-9 and winning a tiebreaker to end up second in the NFC South after edging New Orleans 44-38 Sunday. They lost way too much too early, which meant they missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. But ultimately they did play a little better overall in the second year of Rivera's reign (in 2011, they were 6-10).
I also believe Rivera has improved as a coach and is starting to curb his conservative tendencies. Witness him reconsidering an early punt against the Saints on fourth-and-8 from the New Orleans 37 and instead going for a 54-yard field goal.
The field goal missed, but nevertheless it was the right call. When you play the Saints, you must pile up the points, and the Panthers did so. I also liked the fact that the Panthers knelt down inside the New Orleans 10 to end the game rather than try to score again. That was classy, especially given the fact the Saints had tried to grab every NFL record they could a year ago, keeping in their starters with the game well out of hand.
-- It was impossible not to be impressed by Cam Newton's toughness Sunday. I thought the second time his left leg got bent back almost underneath him that he was done for the afternoon, and yet there he came again, getting retaped and finishing the game after Derek Anderson subbed in briefly (and effectively).
-- I still believe that Carolina has too much money invested in the running back position and I won't be surprised (or displeased) at all if they part with DeAngelo Williams in the offseason. But with Jonathan Stewart so limited due to injury in 2012, having Williams was far more than a luxury Sunday -- it was a necessity. He had one of the best games any Panther running back has ever had (albeit against the defense that has given up more yards than any NFL defense ever in a single season). Williams rushed for 210 yards and two TDs, the most rushing yards in a game any Panther back has ever had.
-- One way to prolong Newton's durability: forget about giving him the ball on third-and-short and goal-line situations. Mike Tolbert has the body for that, as he proved Sunday with three short TDs in which he simply bowled his way through the line.
-- If only Charles Godfrey could play against Drew Brees every week. Godfrey's only two interceptions all season came against Brees -- one he returned for a TD in Week Two and the second set up a crucial Carolina TD in this game.
-- By winning this one only six points, Rivera finally got another "close" win. The Panthers are now 2-12 in his tenure in games decided by a touchdown or less.