CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers entered their home opener Sunday having won 12 of their last 13 regular season games, an impressive stretch made possible in part by head coach Ron Rivera's knack for making the right call.
The run started last year when Rivera, his team mired in a 1-3 start, rethought his strategy in fourth-and-short situations, a successful change in philosophy that blossomed into the legend of "Riverboat Ron."
The last victory in the stretch - the season opener at Tampa Bay - found Rivera deciding to sit quarterback Cam Newton so he could have one more week to heal his injuries. With Derek Anderson at the helm, the Panthers rolled.
Sunday morning, Rivera awoke facing yet another crucial decision, but this one carried much more weight than the previous ones because it went well beyond the football field.
After consulting with other important figures in the organization, Rivera chose to deactivate Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, a key figure in the Panthers' recent run but also someone who finds himself embroiled in a domestic violence case.
There are many layers to the decision, and in the grand scheme of things, football isn't a very important layer. But while the decision really wasn't about wins and losses, the Panthers won for the 13th time in 14 regular season games.
"At the end of the day, I had to make the decision that was best for the Carolina Panthers," Rivera said after his Panthers rallied to a 24-7 victory over the Detroit Lions. "The decision I made today was based on all the information I tried to get, with the people that I talked with. We have a young man going through a very difficult time as well. Let's not forget that. There are a lot of people involved, and a lot of people are going through a difficult time as well. Let's not forget that, either. It's a very serious issue, and we're trying to treat it with as much dignity as possible. We'll let the process take care of itself as we go forward.
"As a football team, I thought we played a heck of a football game, and I'm very proud of our football team for dealing with the distraction that we had to deal with."
Rivera indicated that Hardy would play in the future but could offer no timetable, only saying "as we go through this process and this process works itself out in the right direction."
With Hardy out of action, his teammates demonstrated for the second consecutive week that it's never about one player while at the same time showing their support for that one player.
"It's not about one man; it's about us coming together and playing well as a team," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We feel like we're definitely a better team, a better defense with him on the field. But it's one of those things where we just have to sit back as a team and as players and let the situation play out.
"In the meantime, we have to continue to come to work. We have to continue to do what we are paid to do, and that's play football."
And play football they did. Davis posted 12 tackles, and fellow linebacker Luke Kuechly had 11. Cornerback Antoine Cason forced two fumbles and recovered one to go with 10 tackles, and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards recorded 1.5 sacks.
Then there was defensive end Mario Addison. Working in Hardy's spot, Addison recorded 2.5 sacks. He totaled 2.5 sacks last season while playing in all 16 games.
"We knew we had to step it up knowing he's not here," Addison said. "We play off each other; we gain momentum from each other. We had to come out and do what we had to do and fill that role."
Before the game, the defensive line broke down their huddle by mentioning Hardy.
"It's definitely a tough situation," Cason said. "Being his teammate, I support him. It's tough on everyone. I don't know all the details, but he's my teammate. I support him. I've told him that before, and I'll keep telling him that. As a member of the team, I'll keep being by his side."
In addition to showing support for Hardy, the Panthers threw their support behind the man who ultimately made the decision to go without Hardy.
"We have relied on each other, trusted each other and rallied around Coach Rivera," Kuechly said. "We concentrate on the guys in this building."