CHARLOTTE – Head coach Ron Rivera took possession of two game balls following the Panthers' dramatic victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
Rivera handed the first one to tight end Greg Olsen, who caught two touchdown passes, including the game winner, against his former team to key the 31-24 victory. Rivera then congratulated the defensive line and running backs for their spirited effort.
Only when he left the locker room bound for his press conference did Rivera realize he still had a game ball in hand.
Rivera's going to keep that one.
While Olsen spent his first four NFL seasons with Chicago, he's now in his fourth season alongside Rivera, who is also in his fourth season with Carolina but spent 18 seasons as a player, coach and broadcaster with the Bears.
"You always want to beat your family members," Rivera said. "It felt great."
Rivera earned bragging rights for the next time he gets together with his Bears brothers, but both he and Olsen know they gained so much more. Staring at a third consecutive loss, the Panthers rallied from a 14-point deficit for a victory that improved them to 3-2 and gave them sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
"Winning like that in, coming back like that in front of our home crowd was fun," Olsen said. "That's why you play."
Olsen doesn't have as lengthy a history with the Bears as Rivera, so when Olsen referenced family in his postgame interview, something besides the Bears was on his mind.
For the first time, Olsen got to spend time with his wife and all three of his children in pregame warmups. Son T.J., four days shy of his second birthday and weeks removed from his third and final scheduled surgery to treat a rare heart condition, was well enough to hang out on the sideline.
"It's the first game he's been able to come to," Olsen said of T.J., who also had a pacemaker installed recently in an unexpected but successful final hurdle in his fight against hypoplastic left heart syndrome. "To have them all there was just incredible. To give him a hug and see him in my jersey, that was awesome. It's been a long road, but today was hopefully the finishing touches on that."
Olsen said the pregame moment likely produced the family Christmas card photo.
For any number of reasons, Olsen hopes the Panthers can frame what they accomplished Sunday for future reference.
"We've got to do what we did in the second half for the rest of the season," Olsen said.
Olsen played a massive role in that.
The Panthers trailed 21-7 late midway through the second quarter when, with the offense marching, Olsen hobbled off the field with an ankle injury. The drive ended with a turnover, but when the Panthers got the ball back after Robbie Gould uncharacteristically missed a 35-yard field goal with 1:51 left in the first half, Olsen was back on the field.
He caught a 12-yard pass on the first play of the subsequent drive, then he capped it with a 9-yard touchdown reception to trim the deficit to 21-14 at halftime.
Olsen repeated the feat late in the game, snaring a 6-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton with 2:18 left on the clock, breaking a 24-24 tie and securing the first multi-touchdown game in a victory of his NFL career.
"He was huge. He made some very big plays," Rivera said. "He twisted his ankle, and for him to come back in and make the statement that he did, make the plays that he did, that just shows how important he is to us as a football team."
Once upon a time, at different times, Olsen and Rivera were important to Chicago's cause. Sunday, they both wound up with a game ball after curtailing Chicago's cause and propelling the Panthers forward.