CHARLOTTE – Riverboat Ron Rivera is heading to uncharted waters.
Rivera has earned the nickname by repeatedly taking chances on fourth down that have paid off for his Panthers. The legend grew Sunday when he took a chance by not going for it on fourth down.
It worked out better than anyone could have imagined, and as a result the Panthers are heading somewhere that few imagined following a 1-3 start to the season.
"It's exciting to be in the playoffs, but we've still got a lot of business at hand," Rivera said after dramatic 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints. "We're not going to be satisfied with just being in. We have an opportunity to get a good seed."
The victory earned Carolina's first playoff berth since 2008, and the Panthers can clinch the NFC South title, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game with a victory next week at Atlanta. A loss to the Saints would have left the Panthers needing either help or a victory over the Falcons to even make the playoffs, but that's a moot point after Rivera rolled the dice in a different way than usual and emerged victorious as usual.
Trailing 13-10 and facing the prospect of a fourth consecutive drive without a first down as the clock sped toward the two-minute warning, Rivera went against the grain. On fourth-and-7, he hustled the punt team on the field, hoping to pin New Orleans deep in their own territory before the two-minute warning.
It didn't work out quite as planned. Brad Nortman, who had averaged a healthy 52.6 yards while landing two punts inside the 3-yard line, uncorked his worst kick of the day. Worse still, the 36-yarder came to rest with 1:57 left, virtually guaranteeing that with just two timeouts remaining, the Panthers' best-case scenario was regaining possession with less than a minute left and no timeouts.
But in this magical season, is it really any surprise that those factors ended up actually working in the Panthers' favor?
"We would have been able to save more time," Rivera said. "But it turned out that we didn't want to save more time."
The defense did its job as it had the large majority of the day, forcing a three-and-out. Then the offense needed just five plays – including a spike to kill the clock – and 32 seconds to cover 65 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
The Saints, notorious for last-second heroics under quarterback Drew Brees, were left with just 23 seconds.
"Despite his nickname, I thought that was the right call – especially now that it worked out," left tackle Jordan Gross said with a chuckle. "That was a gutsy call, just like going for a fourth-and-one is. He put it in the hands of the defense."
We know what happened from there, but what could have happened?
Had the Panthers punted but successfully done so before the two-minute warning or with all three timeouts in hand, New Orleans coach Sean Payton might have taken a different tact. Tight end Jimmy Graham was a beast down the stretch; perhaps Brees would have tried to end matters with a safe pass.
Had the Panthers had just one timeout left, they probably would have had no choice but to go for it. They were fortunate to have two remaining, having managed to not use one when Saints holder/backup quarterback Luke McCown lined up to handle a long field goal attempt but then rose, took a shotgun snap and took an unsuccessful shot downfield early in the second half.
As it turned out, the Panthers had exactly the right amount of timeouts, and Rivera made exactly the right decision.
Then again, maybe all those variations would have also resulted in a victory. Whatever the decision these days, it's best to roll with Riverboat Ron.
"Coach trusted his gut," tight end Greg Olsen said. "He's been great on those calls all year. That's his responsibility, and he's comes through for us time and time again.
"And in hindsight, it obviously looks great."