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Carolina Panthers

Rivera: 'We've matured at the right time'

CHARLOTTE – It took some incredible individual efforts to turn head coach Ron Rivera's weekly press conference Monday into a playoff preview rather than a review of an up-and-down season.

Many of those efforts were obvious to fans watching Sunday's 34-3 demolition of the Atlanta Falcons that earned the Panthers a second consecutive NFC South title and playoff berth. Some of the contributions, however, were more behind the scenes but no less important.

"The one thing that's really happened is the development of our leadership," said Rivera, whose Panthers will host the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday (4:35 p.m., ESPN) in an NFC Wild Card Playoff. "It's been tremendous. We've been looking for guys, and guys have stepped up.

"There's been Charles Johnson, and then Ryan Kalil has been as steady as they come. Thomas Davis, everybody knows he's the emotional leader, but now you also see Luke (Kuechly) in the forefront stepping up and breaking the team down. Cam (Newton) is doing more and more of that, and Greg (Olsen) is another one.

"You see these guys emerge, and that's a sign of us maturing. We've matured at the right time."

The Panthers matured just in time – both from the standpoint of leadership and level of play – and reeled off four consecutive victories to come seemingly out of nowhere to qualify for the postseason for the sixth time in franchise history.

They needed new leadership following the departure of veterans Jordan Gross and Steve Smith after last season. It came natural to Davis and Olsen, and Kalil was ready to take on the role as well. But relatively young players like Newton and Kuechly had to grow into it, and a usually reserved veteran in Johnson really found his voice over the last month.

"I really like the emergence of Charles Johnson as a leader," Rivera said. "We've always considered him a leader, but man, the last four weeks he's been phenomenal.

"He cares a lot, but he's really guarded. Lately, he's really been emotional and outspoken. It's uncharacteristic of him, but I'm glad he's doing it."

Rivera said Johnson took his game to "a whole new level" in the process, and that's really the key. Strong leadership can keep a team together during tough times, but the tough times will continue if that team-first mentality doesn't impact the performance on the field.

"We've found a number of guys to step up and lead us, step up and play for us," Rivera said. "We've had guys develop as far as our young offensive line is concerned and our revamped secondary and revamped wide receiver corps. All those things have come to fruition.

"A lot of it has to do with the personnel getting comfortable."

The Panthers, however, don't plan to just be comfortable with reaching the playoffs. Last year's playoff appearance was short-lived, a 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers that left Carolina still seeking its first postseason victory since 2005.

Davis is the lone player on this roster that was on that team.

"Until we can do that, there will always be doubters, always people who will say, 'Well, you can only get them that far,'" Rivera said. "I want to dispel that, not just for me but for the team.

"I obviously want to go all the way, but we've got to take it one game at a time. The next step obviously would be to win a playoff game. Now we've got to play well enough to win."

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