TAMPA — A month ago, Ron Rivera didn't appear to be long for the Carolina sidelines.
The Panthers opened the season with losses to Seattle and Buffalo by a combined margin of six points, dropping Rivera to 13-21 as an NFL head coach.
Fans in Charlotte questioned Rivera's schemes, his staff, maybe even his motivational skills before the Giants came to town in Week 3 and the Panthers administered a 38-0 beatdown.
That triggered a span of four victories in five games, capped by Thursday night's 31-13 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The nationally televised triumph was no fluke as quarterback Cam Newton maintained his stellar play and the NFL's No. 3 defense limited Tampa Bay to only 4.4 yards per snap.
“We didn't turn the ball over (one lost fumble) and they beat us 31-13,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “My hat's off to Carolina. They played well against us, that's all I can judge.”
At 4-3, the Panthers have topped the .500 mark during the regular season for the first time since the end of the 2008 season, a span of 70 games.
“The thing that I love is that nobody around here thinks that we finished anything,” said Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross, who effectively protects Newton's blind side
Carolina will bring impressive momentum into a killer three-game stretch — beginning next Sunday — against the Falcons, 49ers and Patriots.
Given the quick start by the Saints, the Panthers are unlikely to win the NFC South for the first time in five years. But there's no reason to think they won't be a factor in the jumbled wild-card race, especially if Newton remains healthy.
Led by a dynamic front four and relentless middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina's front seven is legit. The secondary has some holes, but a solid pass rush makes it difficult for opponents to exploit weaknesses downfield.
Rivera has every reason to feel proud of what he has accomplished in his third pro season.
A year ago, he was answering questions about a plodding attack and a leaky defense. Instead of waffling, owner Jerry Richardson stood by Rivera, a hard-hitting linebacker with the Bears for nine seasons, including their 1985 championship club.
“I think the players are playing hard and giving it their all,” Rivera said. “Their approach to it is very professional and the guys work really hard. They do the things that they need to do. I think the big thing also is our quarterback has done a great job. He's really developing and doing things that we need to have done. Our defense is playing well, our offensive line is very solid. Special teams has been outstanding.”
That about covers it, Mr. Rivera.
While Schiano awaits his turnaround, Rivera approaches each game with the confidence of knowing his club has emerged from the pits of a 1-3 getaway.
“At no point did I ever doubt this group of guys, maybe because I'm an optimist,” Rivera said. “I just really do believe that it was a matter of time.”