Head coach Ron Rivera acknowledged Monday that his Panthers are playing like a playoff team entering Sunday's showdown at the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, but postseason possibilities are the furthest thing from his mind.
"Well, you guys brought it up," Rivera said when asked why he was "comfortable" discussing the playoffs. "I keep trying to tell you it's one game at a time.
"I'm confident in who our guys are, and I'm an optimist. But the thing I want to stress is that this is the most important game we play because it's the one we're about to play. It's the only one that matters."
Rivera is excited to play a team with the playoff pedigree of the 49ers, who have appeared in consecutive NFC Championship games. But he doesn't necessarily see it as any more of a gauge of where his Panthers are than any other game.
For one thing, Rivera feels he can adequately gauge the progress of his team through what they've done during their current four-game winning streak, capped by Sunday's 34-10 victory over an Atlanta Falcons team that played the 49ers in last year's NFC title game.
The four opponents have a combined record of 6-27, but the worst of the bunch record-wise – the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers – took a Seattle Seahawks team that hasn't lost at home in nearly two years to overtime.
"I've said it before and keep stressing it: 'It's very hard in this league to win' " Rivera said. "You sit there and look at Atlanta, and you can't tell me they're a 2-6 team. There are a lot of good football players on that team, a lot of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros and a future Hall of Famer. You play who you play."
Rivera also isn't putting any undue emphasis on playing a team with a winning record because he knows none of it matters if the Panthers don't keep playing like they've been playing. He got a sobering dose of that in the first half Sunday, when an uneven performance left the Panthers in a tenuous situation before they turned it on after halftime.
"For whatever reason, we didn't execute the way we're capable of and we left a lot of opportunities on the field," Rivera said. "We have a great opportunity in front of us and the chances can be limitless, but we have to play that way. Just because we're doing it now doesn't mean it's automatic, so we'll take it one play at a time, one game at a time. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves."
Rivera, a player on the Chicago Bears' championship team 28 years ago and an assistant coach on nine playoff teams, believes the Panthers have the look of a playoff-caliber team.
But having played for or coached on nine teams that didn't make the playoffs, he also knows the difference between a team capable of qualifying for the postseason and a team that actually qualifies for the postseason.
"We can be a playoff team because of the things that we've done, because of the way that we're playing. If we play this consistent all the way through, who knows?" Rivera said. "It feels like a team that has an opportunity, a team that has a chance to go forward and be better, but we're not where we need to be. There is a lot for us to do, a lot for us to learn."