Quick observations on the Panthers' 24-23 loss to Buffalo Sunday (which I watched not from Buffalo, but from my couch, just to make clear where I am while writing this):
-- That is the kind of blown game that gets your head coach fired, and it won't be a total surprise if Panthers owner Jerry Richardson pulls the trigger as early as Monday. He showed last year with the midseason firing of general manager Marty Hurney -- whom Richardson was a lot closer to than Rivera -- that he will make a difficult midseason move if he feels like nothing is working. If nothing else, this puts the Rivera job security question back in play once more.
Rivera is now 2-14 in games decided by seven points or less during his Carolina career. Fox Sports flashed up another statistic late in the game noting that the Panthers had lost nine games under Rivera since he took over in 2011 after leading in the fourth quarter -- the most in the NFL in that time period.
Make it 10.
This one just had some awful decision-making late -- not only by the defense in allowing Buffalo's game-winning, two-minute drive of 80 yards, but also by Rivera. To not try and throw the ball at least once in the final possession -- with the ball inside Buffalo's 35 -- was conservatism at its worst. Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula simply ran it three times in a row, using up all of Buffalo's timeouts, but giving the Bills back the ball only six points down with almost two minutes left instead of going for the jugular.
Remember how well Seattle used up the final five minutes of last week's game, by throwing in similar situations and getting first downs? The Panthers do that just once, and the game's over.
Then came the Bills' final drive and its air of inevitability -- Luke Kuechly's critical pass-interference penalty (negating an interception) and the pass-coverage mixup from the Panthers' patched-up secondary with two seconds left that allowed the last touchdown from two yards out.
-- Critical point: Why would you entrust the game to a beaten-down secondary? That's what the Panthers did by running the ball three straight times on that last drive, playing the "let's don't lose" card once again instead of the "let's finish this." They put it in the hands of a tired defense -- which still should have stopped the Bills, yes, but should never have had to be in that position.
-- Where was the pass rush on that last drive? Where has Greg Hardy been, period? That 50-sack goal isn't looking too good.
-- With the team's secondary in tatters after a spate of injuries Sunday, the team's doctors and Panther general manager Dave Gettleman better have a very good week. Eli Manning is going to absolutely eat the Panthers' lunch next Sunday again in Charlotte if the Panthers can't get the secondary settled.
-- No one can accuse Shula of not taking vertical shots in this game. It seemed like Cam Newton threw a 40-yard ball on almost every drive -- until the end. Only one was completed -- a 40-yarder to Ted Ginn Jr. that accounted for the Panthers' second touchdown. But that deep threat helped the Panthers elsewhere, as the offense looked better in Week 2 despite the final score.
-- Defensive end Mario Williams had the best pass-rushing day I have ever seen against a Carolina offensive line. The stats back it up -- Williams had 4.5 sacks, which was the most the Panthers have ever allowed to an individual. Whenever he was blocked by just one man, he usually ate it up -- especially if the poor soul was the overmatched Byron Bell. It was the second time in a row the Panthers have gotten burned by a former Wolfpack player -- Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 320 yards against them last week.
-- Graham Gano really had a good day, making three fourth-quarter field goals for Carolina but also making sure the Bills could never get a kickoff return by blasting all his kickoffs out of the end zone. This sure wasn't his fault.
-- Kuechly's interception earlier in the fourth quarter was a big play, but his pass interference call was unfortunately even bigger. As good as Kuechly is, in the first two weeks he has been unable to stem the tide of a game turning against the Panthers. Nor has Newton, and those two are the Panthers' two cornerstones. If the Panthers had just gotten one of their final three field-goal drives into the end zone, this one would have been over and Carolina would have been going home 1-1 instead of 0-2.
Instead, the Panthers go home with a huge number of questions, including how long their head coach is going to last. In the 34 games he has coached Carolina, Rivera has now lost 10 of them after his team led at some point in the fourth quarter.
These sorts of losses have long ceased being surprises. They constitute some sort of coaching character flaw -- this terrible habit Rivera has of riding the brakes with a lead. And I'm no longer sure it can be fixed.
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