CHARLOTTE – The first two words uttered at Ron Rivera's day-after press conference were ones that some fans find hard to hear, but they're even harder for a head coach to say and deal with following a one-point loss.
"Missed opportunities," Rivera said when asked off the top what most frustrated him during his Monday morning film review of Sunday's 20-19 loss at the Lions. "We had a chance to put 24 points on the board and we didn't. When you miss opportunities to put points on the board, the result is that you lose."
Just 21 points might have been enough, so of course conversation quickly turned back to Rivera's decision with 67 seconds left to go for two points instead of attempting the extra point to tie the game.
"At some point in the game you've got to score to win. You've got to make a play. Why not sooner than later?" said Rivera, who expressed zero regret about his decision. "I liked the fact that we were putting the ball in Cam's hands. I liked the play call. We got a coverage that we could beat. Unfortunately, we missed the throw."
Rivera won't say that the decision was in any way a response to Graham Gano missing an extra point and a 34-yard field goal in the second half. He did, however, remind everyone Monday of something that fans sometimes seem to forget: Kicks, even off the foot of the league's best kickers, aren't guaranteed to go through.
"There's a lot of good lessons for all of us as coaches and players and fans to learn from. This game is tough; it's not an easy game. Things aren't automatic," Rivera said. "Let's not forget that the guy made a 63-yarder to beat the Giants. Let's all calm down."
Kickers with their leg swing and quarterbacks with their throwing motion are arguably the most susceptible players on the football field to simply "not having it" for stretches of games, and when that does happen, their struggles also are the most front-facing (witness Newton's two-point conversion throw).
"You're not going to go out and beat everybody every time, and we've won six games and have lost four," Rivera said. "If you want to talk about the six games that we've won, I can tell you exactly what happened in terms of the good things, too. We take the good with the bad and we just try to correct things."
Gano's missed field goal early in the second half was the definition of a missed opportunity even before he trotted onto the field.
The Panthers were trailing 10-7 and backed up on their own 6-yard line (they were backed up all day) when rookie receiver DJ Moore made a special play that did everything but put points on the board. His 82-yard catch and run set Carolina up at the Detroit 12, and after two Christian McCaffrey runs, the Panthers faced a third-and-2 at the 4.
The play the Panthers drew up had touchdown written all over it, but a Lions linebacker made a play that resulted in a sack for a 12-yard loss. The design left Moore in a mismatch in space with Christian Jones, but Jones saw Moore coming and knocked him off his route. The second that window closed, linebacker Jarrad Davis flew through from the other side and Newton had no time to spot anyone else.
"We were actually running a crosser underneath, and one of their defenders turned and caught one of our guys. He wasn't looking, and he jammed him up pretty good," Rivera said. "It's unfortunate because at that point we had some pretty decent protection, and had a chance to make a play. But we've got to give them credit. You've got to remember there are 11 guys on the other side of the field trying to keep us from doing those things."
An opportunity in Detroit missed, now it's about the next opportunity – a particularly big one based on the standings.
Despite a second straight loss, the Panthers currently lead the race for one of the NFC's two wild card playoff berths with a 6-4 record (with the Vikings right behind at 5-4-1). Two teams are a game back at 5-5 – a Cowboys team that the Panthers have beaten and thus will hold the tiebreaker against, and a Seahawks team that visits Charlotte on Sunday.
"They're all big, they really are. This game is big because of the situation," Rivera said. "We'll look at it that way and approach it that way. It's what's in front of us; it's the game we're about to play."
This is the 10th time in franchise history that the Panthers have had at least six victories after 10 games. In eight of those previous nine instances, they went on to advance to the playoffs.
"That's the thing I expressed to the guys – we control the situation and set of circumstances," Rivera said. "We have to take care of business, do it one game at a time, and just stay focused on that one game."
View the top ten photos by team photographer, Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez, and second shooter, Brett Carlsen.