MINNEAPOLIS - Some way, somehow, it seems to always come down to fourth-and-1, a sticky situation that often has resulted in an unfortunate outcome from the Panthers' perspective.
But Sunday, the curse of fourth-and-1 became a blessing, leading to hope that the tables have at long last turned.
"To have Coach Rivera give us the go-ahead on two fourth-and-ones in one drive is pretty gutsy," left tackle Jordan Gross said after the Panthers turned the conversions into a touchdown that propelled them to a 35-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. "It meant a lot to us that he would do that. It meant a lot to him that we would hold up our end of the bargain. I think it set the tone for the game."
Sunday's success wasn't unprecedented. In the Panthers' last victory, a 38-0 demolition of the New York Giants in Week 3, Carolina turned a fourth-and-1 into a touchdown early in the game to send them on their way.
This time, though, they pushed the envelope a bit more and were rewarded. Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Vikings 32-yard line, with the option of trying a 49-yard field goal in a scoreless game, the Panthers picked the more aggressive path.
"We're going to do the best we can to make things happen, and I think these guys have bought into that," Rivera said. "Our third-down efficiency was outstanding, and of course we were two-for-two on fourth down."
Fullback Mike Tolbert, who scored the fourth-down touchdown against the Giants, got the ball and steamed through a seam for 2 yards, coming within a shoestring of taking it all the way. From there, the Panthers advanced the ball to the 2-yard line but were again one yard shy of a first down.
After a timeout, quarterback Cam Newton patiently waited for wide receiver Steve Smith to come across the field to the left side of the end zone, and he put the ball on target for the touchdown.
"In a hostile environment, knowing that we need an edge in this game, we went for it," Newton said. "For Coach Rivera to trust us, it means a lot. It speaks volumes.
"He's a defensive coach by nature, so he has that conservative mentality, but I think he's kind of breaking his mold to a degree and giving the whole team confidence with that."
Given past results – the Giants game notwithstanding - it would be understandable if Rivera lacked confidence regardless of the approach he decided best come fourth-and-1.
It started a year ago in a pivotal Week 4 game at the Atlanta Falcons. Ahead 28-27 and facing a fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 45, the Panthers punted, downed the punt at the 1 with 1:09 left - and lost.
A week later, the Panthers couldn't convert a fourth-and-goal from the 1 that they had no choice but to go for trailing Seattle 16-12 in the waning minutes and lost. Five games later, they punted on fourth-and-1 at midfield leading Tampa Bay 21-13 with 1:09 left. They lost.
This year, in Week 2 at Buffalo, they faced a fourth-and-1 at the Bills 21 with 1:42 to go and decided to kick a field goal that put them ahead 23-17. They lost. And just last week, Brandon LaFell dropped a pass on an early fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 15. Yes, they lost.
The truth is that every one of those decisions on fourth-and-1 made sense. But with uncanny regularity, the Panthers either didn't make the play when they went for it or the opposition made a series of plays after the Panthers didn't go for it.
Sunday's fourth-down decisions were no more or no less sound. But how the Panthers responded to the decisions created the sound of silence around Minnesota's notoriously loud dome home.
"It sends the message that Coach Rivera has confidence in our group. That goes a long way," center Ryan Kalil said. "At the same time, we have to make sure that we answer for him when he puts that confidence in us."