CHARLOTTE - The Panthers' season-opening loss at Tampa Bay was a bitter pill to swallow, one that refused to go down easily and one that players and coaches were left to chew on for the better part of a week.
Sweet relief came Sunday with an emphatic bounce-back triumph over the New Orleans Saints, but the feeling was fleeting thanks to the NFL schedule makers.
"We want to savor this one as long as we can but we know we have to face the defending world champions," said head coach Ron Rivera, whose Panthers will host the New York Giants on Thursday. "We enjoyed it till after dinner, and then we came back and started looking at the Giants.
"But," Rivera said, "it's worth it."
While the Panthers scored a satisfying 35-27 victory over the Saints to avoid starting 0-2 against NFC South foes, the Giants dodged an 0-2 start with a dramatic victory over the same team that stunned Carolina in the opener.
Tampa Bay led the Giants 27-16 after three quarters, but quarterback Eli Manning led New York to 25 fourth-quarter points and finished with 510 passing yards in a 41-34 victory.
With Manning directing a versatile offense and a formidable front seven leading the defense, the Panthers have their work cut out for them – and their work schedule cut in half.
"It's tough for the players and the coaches, but it's all part of it," Rivera said. "We've got to be able to develop a feel and have a good understanding of what they want to do and when they want to do it."
By the same token, the Giants are limited in their preparation time for a Panthers offense that the Saints couldn't corral with a full week of preparation.
With offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski pulling all the right strings, Carolina rushed for 219 yards and passed for 253 yards in the victory.
"Chud likes to talk about having offensive balance, but offensive balance doesn't necessarily just mean 25 runs and 25 passes," Rivera said. "It means being able to run and pass when you want to or when you have to. We were able to do some of those things well, at the right time."
While Rivera knows preparing for the Giants in such a short time frame presents a major challenge, it's a challenge he's embracing – perhaps more so than he did as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s.
"As a player, I hated it," Rivera admitted. "In Chicago, you played at noon, and I loved that. You'd (play) at noon, be done, and then you'd go out, hang out and have a little bit of fun and watch everybody else.
"I'm a creature of habit. It was always tough to get used to time changes."
These days, however, times are changing much more often, and being a part of it has become a status symbol of sorts.
Monday Night Football was the only non-Sunday afternoon action when was Rivera was a player. Sunday night games have become a staple since Rivera's playing days. Thursday night games have been mainly a late-season phenomena until this season, when the NFL Network will broadcast 13 primetime affairs.
The Panthers played their final 15 games in the traditional one o'clock time slot last season, but this year they have the Giants on Thursday and will visit the Philadelphia Eagles for Monday Night Football on Nov. 26. Plus, any of their final seven games (minus the Eagles game) can be "flexed" into a different time slot for maximum exposure.
"We want to have a game or two flexed into prime time, because it would mean we've done some good things if we get that opportunity," Rivera said. "This is the national spotlight. You want to talk about bright lights and big stage? This is as big as it gets. You're playing the defending champs, you're playing on Thursday night. You are the prime time game. This is great for us."