ATLANTA – They don't call it Black Monday for nothing.
Monday was the darkest of days in many corners of the NFL, with several head coaches losing their jobs. Ron Rivera knows the feeling, having gone to sleep on this same Monday one year ago unsure about whether he'd return as Panthers head coach in 2013.
But tonight, Rivera will head to bed with a different set of visions dancing in his head.
"I'm very fortunate, but this is where I envisioned we would be," said Rivera, whose Panthers earned the NFC South title and a first-round playoff bye with Sunday's 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. "It was exciting for this team yesterday – very happy for the team, the players, the coaches and the organization itself – and also very excited about the fans and their response.
"It is most certainly one of the goals that you do set for yourself and your team, and as a team we accomplished that first one. But there's a lot more left to go."
The eve of Rivera's first playoff game as a head coach - when Bank of America Stadium plays host to an NFC Divisional game - will mark the third anniversary of Rivera's hire date in Carolina. On Jan. 11, 2011, Rivera ascended the podium in the team meeting room and told gathered media and team officials that his goal was to lead the organization to a victory in the Super Bowl.
His statement came on the heels of a 2-14 season.
"I talked to the players when I first got the job about where I believed we could be, that we could win it all, we could win the Super Bowl," Rivera said. "That's one of the visions. It is satisfying, but again, we're not done. There's a lot of work still to do."
Rivera reminded his players of just that in his postgame speech Sunday, though they didn't really need to be reminded. Given as far as they've come since Rivera first walked in the door, and as long as it took them to reach this point, they're not about to be satisfied with stopping here.
"They've endured an awful lot, have gone through an awful lot, and it's made them stronger and better," Rivera said. "They've come together as a football team and understand what they need to do. It's been exciting to watch."
The rebuilding process began in earnest less than four months after Rivera was hired, when the Panthers selected quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall draft pick. Following a 6-10 rookie season for Newton and Rivera, the Panthers used the No. 9 overall pick in 2012 on linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Two days before Sunday's victory in Atlanta, Newton and Kuechly – both NFL rookies of the year on their respective sides of the ball - were named to the Pro Bowl along with three of their teammates.
"In a lot of ways, this team's growth has been reflected in our quarterback's and our middle linebacker's growth," Rivera said. "As we've seen Luke get better and better, that defense has gotten better and better. And with Cam, as he's gotten better, the offense has gotten better.
"Those are the two pillars this team can be built on."
During the building process, pillars sometimes just stand with no structure yet in place to support, but over the final three months of the 2013 season, the Panthers' blueprint took shape. After Carolina had lost eight of its first 10 games in each of Rivera's first two seasons before recovering too late, his third team refused to let a 1-3 start to devolve into another 2-8 record.
Instead, the Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games. And now, instead of enduring Black Monday, Rivera can revel in a red-letter day even if but for one day.
"There's a resilience that they have now and a confidence that they can go into a fourth quarter and get it done," Rivera said. "There are so many facets to our growth and what has happened over the three seasons, but the young men have done a great job. They've been very resilient and tough."