CHARLOTTE – One Sunday after a sobering scene following a last-second loss to the Buffalo Bills, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera couldn't have been happier as he addressed his team and then the media following a truly dominant victory over the New York Giants.
"Winning a game like this, they deserve it," Rivera said. "These guys have been through a lot the last three seasons, so to win a game like this against a team like that – a team coached by Tom Coughlin – says something about who they are."
Rivera was referring to his players.
He could have been referring to himself, but that's simply not his style.
Last year, when a 2-8 start to the season that cost longtime general manager Marty Hurney his job led to speculation that Rivera wasn't long for his job, he kept his focus on his players. This year, following an 0-2 start that sparked the same speculation again in the local media, Rivera took the same approach.
His players, in turn, came to his defense with their play on the field, just like they did late last season. The goods news now is that the tide could be turning early in the 2013 season, with all of the team's goals still well within reach.
"He's a great coach. We've got his back 100 percent," said safety Robert Lester, a rookie who won three national championships under at Alabama. "We're going to go out there and play our hearts out, and he's out there coaching his heart out."
Rivera wore his heart on his sleeve after the game, pointing to his wife, Stephanie, in the stands, then nearly choking up when the media asked him about it.
More importantly, Rivera and his Panthers showed incredible heart during the game against a proud franchise that, like them, was trying to avoid the potential knockout punch that comes with an 0-3 start.
Few doubted that the Panthers could beat the Giants, but who could have possibly forecast the nature of this victory? A year after the Giants throttled Carolina 36-7 on the same Bank of America field, the Panthers did them several points better.
When the Panthers scored their 31st point of the game, the Giants had just 20 yards of total offense.
"You move on quickly, but I don't mind that we beat them by more than they beat us a year ago," veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. "I know they're 0-3, but they're not a bad team. They're our example of a team that went 0-2 and won the Super Bowl. It was great to beat those guys."
As much as Rivera and the Panthers showed heart, it was their collective heads that keyed the victory. Rivera made no bones about how valuable the input of former Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn was to the game plan, but the approach that the Panthers took in practice leading up to Sunday was even more important.
Coaches talk all the time about learning from losses. The Panthers took that to heart and used their heads in the wake of the Buffalo loss.
"This week was about focusing and taking care of the little things, about not leaving any plays out on the field," veteran offensive lineman Travelle Wharton said. "It turns your perspective around to where you realize that any given play in the course of a game can beat you – not just the last play – so let's take care of those plays throughout the game and not let it come down to the last play.
"We played together, and that's what happened today."
Wharton, who played for the Cincinnati Bengals last year after spending his first eight seasons with the Panthers, said it felt good to hear "Sweet Caroline" reverberating through the stadium after Sunday's game.
"When you hear that, you know it's a win," Wharton said. "And that's what you want with the work you put in for the week."
You better believe it was sweet music to Rivera's ears.