Rivera still has "strong hope" for season

CHARLOTTE – In each of Ron Rivera's first two seasons as Carolina's head coach, the Panthers won their 11th game to improve to 3-8.

Both of those teams finished the season strong, but it wasn't nearly enough to earn a playoff spot.

Sunday, the Panthers suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Atlanta Falcons that dropped them to 3-7-1.

But this season, if the Panthers come close to running the table down the stretch like they did in 2011 and 2012, the NFC South title and a playoff berth could be theirs.

"Somebody is trying to give us a gift," cornerback Josh Norman said. "As crazy as it is, we're still in it."

In 2011, the Panthers were mathematically eliminated from the division race even before beating the Indianapolis Colts to improve to 3-8. In 2012, Carolina barely avoided mathematical elimination with a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles that improved the Panthers to 3-8 but left them five games behind the New Orleans Saints with five games to play.

This season, in stark contrast, the Panthers would be alone in first place had they found a way to knock off the Falcons. Instead, the Falcons and Saints are tied for the division lead at 4-6.

While the Panthers' remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .400, the Falcons' and Saints' remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .500.

"As crazy as it seems, we still have an opportunity. We play each of those teams one more time, and if we take care of our business and put ourselves in position, we have a chance to win the NFC South," Rivera said. "We're in the middle of a division race, and I don't believe it's faint hope; I believe it's strong hope. That's how I feel about our team."

While a turnaround after the bye week is possible, it might seem like a stretch to think that a team on a five-game losing streak could win five in a row – or at least four out of five – to possibly reach the playoffs.

But in 2011, a Carolina team that started 2-8 won four of its last six games. In 2012, a Panthers team that started 2-8 won five of its last six games.

Rivera has always taken a one-game-at-a-time approach, but Monday – 13 days away from the Panthers' next game – he addressed the team about the big picture.

"I broke my own rule by looking ahead. I told the guys, 'We've got five games to play. If we take care of business in all five games and one other thing happens, we win the division,' " Rivera said. "That's how simple it is."

Last year following a 1-3 start, the Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games to capture the NFC South. They were 8-3 through 11 games last season, but even at 3-7-1 through 11 games this season, another happy ending is still possible.

The Panthers are a combined 11-4 in three seasons under Rivera in Weeks 13-17.

"If we win five, that will be good enough. We would be in the playoffs, and then we'd see what happens," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Our margin for error right now is zero. We have five games. Fortunately the rest of the division is playing as poorly as we are.

"Things are not always going to go according to plan, and this is a perfect example of that. Sometimes you just have to keep your head down and keep working, keep fighting and hope you come out the other side."

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