MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Ron Rivera didn't know quite how to feel.
On the one hand, the Panthers' head coach was thrilled by the way his team rallied for a dramatic victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. On the other hand, he was angered by the way his team put itself in a position where a dramatic rally was necessary.
But at the end of the day, it's much better to have mixed feelings after a victory than after a loss.
"This really tested us," Rivera said after the Panthers rallied from a 16-3 deficit to triumph 20-16. "I'm really disappointed in the first half. It comes back to focus, and that's on me as the head coach and on the coaches.
"I told the guys, 'Honestly, it's like you disrespected them in the first half.' I kind of felt that a couple of times we were going through the motions like they were supposed to lay down."
The Dolphins certainly didn't do that. The low point for the Panthers came just before the two-minute warning, when a Cam Newton interception set up the Dolphins, already leading 13-3, 11 yards short of the end zone.
But the Panthers closed out the half strong, endured some strong words from coaches and team leaders at halftime, then came out in the second half and set a different tone that eventually carried them to victory.
"Coach got on us, we got on ourselves, and Steve (Smith) gave a big-time speech that got everybody motivated," wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "Then we came out and played Panther ball in the second half."
LaFell helped get the turnaround started before halftime. After the defense bowed up following Newton's interception and held the Dolphins to a field goal, the offense got the ball back with 61 seconds and no timeouts left. They maneuvered into field goal range when LaFell took advantage of the Dolphins dropping back, gained 29 yards and got out of bounds with one second remaining to set up a Graham Gano 46-yard field goal.
"Greg Olsen was telling me to get out of bounds, but I was about to take the middle of the field and try to make the safety miss and get the score," LaFell said. "But Olsen being a vet, he's been in that situation many times, and he got me out of bounds. Graham came in and kicked the field goal, and to me that field goal is the play of game. That was big-time for us."
Olsen suggested that the first-half finish was worth more than three points. It certainly seemed to carry over to the start of the second half, when the Panthers marched 83 yards for their first touchdown. They had gained 116 yards the entire first half, and nearly half of those yards were on the last-minute drive.
The defense eventually hit its stride as well.
"We struggled from the beginning. That was the worst half of football we've played in quite some time," said defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who sealed the victory with a sack on the game's final play. "We knew we had to play better. We knew we had to shut them out in the second half, and that's exactly what we did. Good teams find a way to win games like this.
"One of our goals every week is to hold teams under 17. We spotted them 16 in the first half, so we knew we had to play great in the second half."
After the offense's touchdown to start the second half, the unit couldn't get anything going again until its final drive. Perpetually poor field position hurt the cause, but the defense helped the cause by keeping it at a three-point deficit throughout. Eventually – and just in the nick of time – the offense got moving again, navigating 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 43 seconds to play.
And with that, Rivera was free to tell his team that the cumulative effort wasn't good enough even though it was good enough for the Panthers' seventh consecutive victory.
"We gave ourselves a chance to win," Rivera said. "These guys are very resilient."