CHARLOTTE - On the eve of Sunday's game at the Atlanta Falcons, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera again told his team how close it was to breaking through, this time using another NFL coach to help deliver his message.
The day after a close loss to the Falcons, Rivera's message hadn't changed.
"I had a great conservation with Coach Norv Turner on Saturday," Rivera said Monday, referring to the San Diego Chargers head coach that he worked with from 2007-10. "He said, 'I put some of your tape in, and you guys are a play away. You get one guy to make a catch here or one guy to make a tackle there or get a sack there, it changes.'
"That's what I told my guys Saturday night. I said, 'Do you realize how close we are? Arizona (in Week 1) all the way through – every one of those games, we were a play away.'"
That remained the case following Sunday's 31-17 setback – a game the Panthers led 17-14 entering the fourth quarter – though Rivera actually chose to point out three game-changing plays:
--Late in the first half from Atlanta's 10-yard line, with the Panthers trailing 14-10, Falcons safety William Moore got a hand on a Cam Newton pass headed to Steve Smith in the end zone, and cornerback Brent Grimes came up with an interception off the tip.
"If he doesn't tip the ball, we go in at halftime up," Rivera said. "You watch that on tape over and over and over, it's a touchdown. You've got to give that guy credit. He was chasing somebody else in coverage, and he just happened to put his arm up and deflect it."
--With about 10 minutes left in the game and Atlanta facing a third-and-12 from the Carolina 47 in a 17-17 game, quarterback Matt Ryan hit wide receiver Harry Douglas in right flat for 34 yards to set up what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
"Greg Hardy makes a great move and hits the quarterback as he throws it," Rivera said. "The ball comes out with nothing on it, but Captain Munnerlyn loses his position for just a second."
--And with six minutes remaining from the Carolina 41, with the Panthers trailing 24-17, Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters sensed a screen pass intended for DeAngelo Williams and made an athletic interception that proved to be the beginning of the end.
"If DeAngelo catches it," Rivera said, "there's nobody there but three blockers."
Later Monday, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski offered his take on the unfortunate interceptions.
"It's football, and those things are going to happen sometimes," he said. "They'll go your way sometimes, and they'll go the other way sometimes. I think we're about due for some to go our way."
The coaching staff surely is tired of playing the what-if game, but it's better than the postgame scene much of last season, when the Panthers went 2-14. That team struggled to compete; this team will return home Sunday to face the Washington Redskins after wrapping up a stretch against three 2010 playoff teams that could have resulted in a 3-0 mark rather than an 0-3 mark.
"To me, you find solace in the fact that we're getting better and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Rivera said. "I can see it, and that's the thing that keeps me going. I'm excited to come to work, and I know our players are.
"Sure, it's a tough pill to swallow, but you've got get your head up."
In time, Rivera believes that coaches who face Carolina will be the ones bemoaning a play or two that could have turned the game in their favor.
"We are a play away," Rivera said, "but we've got to find out who is going to make it, and then we've got to make it."