CHARLOTTE – Good riddance to November.
Bring on December.
“The month of November is over, and it hasn’t been a great month for us,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “It’s time to move on to December and make it our best football yet.”
Munnerlyn was with the Panthers at the beginning of the Ron Rivera era, when his first two teams in 2011 and 2012 endured growing pains but learned about finishing strong by going 7-2 in December. It paid off in the last year of Munnerlyn’s first stint in Carolina, when in 2013 the Panthers went 4-1 in December to earn a playoff bye.
Now, coming off a 1-3 November – Carolina’s worst under Rivera outside of a crazy 2014 season that we’ll come back to – the Panthers hope to add to their 24-10 December record under Rivera. That’s tied with Seattle for the best mark in the NFC and trails only Pittsburgh and New England of the AFC.
“We just get better as the year goes on,” Munnerlyn said. “It seemed that way even back to the first time I was here with Coach Rivera.”
The Panthers and Patriots are the only teams to finish .500 or better in December every year since 2011, and Carolina must keep that streak alive beginning Sunday at Tampa Bay to have a shot at making the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
But Rivera, with his Panthers on a three-game slide, isn’t touting his teams’ Decembers to remember.
“People keep talking about, ‘You’ve got to do this, got to do this, got to do this to get to the playoffs,’ ” Rivera said. “You can’t do that, do that until you do the first thing, and that’s win a football game.
“We’ve got to stay focused on what is next, and that’s to play the game and win the game.”
Three weeks ago the Panthers were right on the Saints’ heels in the NFC South, and a division title as opposed to a wild card was all the talk. But now Carolina is 6-5 and out of the playoffs entirely “if the season ended today” because of tiebreakers.
“We’ve given up our space that we did have, and so now we can’t have any mistakes,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “We have to approach every game like a playoff game. Every game is must-win.”
That was the approach late in the aforementioned 2014 season, when a six-game losing streak put the Panthers at 3-8-1 entering December. The rest of the division was struggling as well so the window hadn’t officially closed, and Carolina responded behind the leadership of an optimistic and determined Rivera by reeling off four consecutive victories to squeeze into the playoffs. The Panthers won a playoff game as well.
Those regular season victories to pull off the improbable came, in order, against the Saints, the Buccaneers, the Browns and the Falcons. The Panthers’ final five games are against those same teams this December, and it’s not nearly as steep an uphill climb to the postseason.
But making it another December to remember is only possible if the Panthers take care of December 2, if they take care of the Buccaneers in Tampa on Sunday.
“Everybody on our team has the right attitude,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “We’ve got a good group with a lot of great leaders. At times like this you can go down two roads; we’ve just to go stick together and have a good sense of urgency.”