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Breaking down close-game showings


An often-quoted statistic about Ron Rivera's tenure as Panthers head coach details his team's struggles in games decided by seven or fewer points.

The accuracy of the stat, which shows him to own a 1-11 record in such situations, is undeniable.

The reality of the situation, however, isn't as bad as the stat makes it seem.

First of all, the stat doesn't account for the team's performance in eight-point games, which really should fall into the same category since that's a margin that can be erased with one scoring drive.

That was the situation Monday night at the Philadelphia Eagles, when the Panthers took a 30-22 lead with 4:40 to play and held on for the victory.

In games decided by eight points, Rivera is 4-1. All three of Carolina's victories this season are by eight points.

But that doesn't really paint the most accurate picture either because if the point of the stat is to measure performance in close games, should the eight-point victory over Washington really count? Back in Week 9, the Panthers led 21-6 with 90 seconds left and still led 21-13 when Washington got the ball back at its own 17-yard line with 17 seconds left.

The same applies to some of the losses by seven or fewer points. Like Week 2 of the 2011 season versus Green Bay, when the Panthers trailed 30-16 before scoring a touchdown with 41 seconds left to make it a seven-point game.

Since the true intent of the stat is to evaluate performance in close games, I decided to look at it a bit differently than the black-and-white statement that Rivera's teams are 1-11 in games decided by seven or fewer points.

I looked at his 27 games as head coach and sorted each as either a "we should win" game, a "they should win" game, or a "tossup" game.

Loosely defined, a "we should win" game is one in which down the stretch a reasonable observer would think that the Panthers have it in the bag. It's just the opposite for "they should win games."

Rivera's teams have had seven games that fit into each of those categories, compiling a 5-2 record in "we should win" games and an 0-7 record in "they should win" games. The Panthers probably feel due to steal one in light of painful finishes at Atlanta and versus Tampa Bay earlier this season that went against them.

The heart of the discussion lies with Rivera's 13 tossup games. In those games, the Panthers are 4-9 – far from a good record, but also a far cry percentage-wise from the 1-11 record so often referred to in games decided by seven or fewer points.

Then, consider that five of those nine losses came over the first half of Rivera's first season as a head coach and the first half of quarterback Cam Newton's rookie season. Since then, the Panthers are 4-4 in "tossup" games – about what you would reasonably expect.

Rivera has made no bones about the fact that the Panthers haven't done well enough over time in close games, and the two losses in "we should win" games this season were crushing.

Turn those two into wins, and the Panthers would be 5-6 and very much alive in the playoff chase. That's depressing when it comes to the big picture of the 2012 season, but in the big picture beyond this season it shows how close the Panthers are to being playoff-worthy.

No, the Panthers aren't yet where they need to be when it comes to winning close games, but as they showed against the Eagles, they also aren't stuck where that 1-11 stat suggests.

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