CHARLOTTE – When the Panthers fell flat in Arizona back in Week 5 to slip to 1-3, head coach Ron Rivera told his team that it would require hard work rather than magic words to cure their ills.
His team responded with a magical two-month run, the same kind of response Rivera expects now that a franchise-record eight-game winning streak has come to a close with Sunday's 31-13 loss to New Orleans.
"One of the things I talked to the guys about after the game was that this was a humbling experience," Rivera said. "I told the guys that in all honesty I had no magic words for them. The only thing we can truly do is get back on the practice field and work hard, do the things we're supposed to do and do them the right way.
"And when I was talking to them today, I heard that, that it was humbling and that we'll learn from this and come back. I'm encouraged by their attitude."
The Panthers (9-4), still alive for the NFC South title and at least a wild card spot, must bounce back immediately, because nothing is assured with three games to go. Next up are the New York Jets (6-7), an up-and-down team still in the hunt for a playoff berth in the AFC.
"They're still in the mix for everything just like we are. It should be a very competitive game," Rivera said. "We have to be on top of our game, because this is a team that's riding a little bit of a high."
Highs and lows are unavoidable in the NFL, but it's obvious why coaches strive to keep their players on an even keel. A low like the one experienced Sunday in New Orleans can have its benefits, however.
Just witness how the Saints played less than a week after losing their best chance at home field throughout the playoffs with a 34-7 loss at Seattle. And witness how the Seahawks played after their dominant performance against the Saints, falling to San Francisco.
"There is some solace to be found in that, but it's an excuse and I don't want to make an excuse for what happened to us," Rivera said. "We'll have a good week at practice, and we'll be home with our fans out just like they have been all season.
"I think our guys will be zeroed in. We know what's at stake. We know how important these last three games are. There are a lot of possibilities still."
Rivera understands those possibilities could dissipate quickly if the Panthers continue to play like they did Sunday. He called it a team loss, with uncharacteristic breakdowns in multiple areas.
"When you watch the tape, there were some things that were disappointing," Rivera said. "I thought we would know our opponent better and thought we would have played better situational football. There were some basic, fundamental things that we messed up – Football 101 mistakes like being in the right coverage, leverage, knowing where your help is coming from, knowing where to fit in runs, knowing who you're blocking on specific plays, route depth, initial reads.
"Those are base fundamental things we messed up."
Rivera didn't think the big stage overwhelmed his Panthers, who previously handled similar sets of circumstances in victories over San Francisco and New England. He doesn't want his team to forget what happened Sunday night but hopes that more memorable performances like the ones over the last two months lie just around the corner.
"I expect them to respond very well," Rivera said. "Maybe we were a little bit full of ourselves and thought we were capable of just showing up. I'm not saying that's what we did, because there were some bright spots early, but this was a humbling experience.
"We're going to learn from this experience, and I expect us to be ready to play come Sunday."