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Truly taking it one game at a time

CHARLOTTE – Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is embracing the potential distractions created by his team's success.

At the same time, Rivera is asking his players to embrace his plan for not allowing the big stage to distract them.

So far, so good.

"If you're winning, you're more relevant and people pay more attention to you – and deservedly so," Rivera said. "We've got good players that deserve some recognition. They've worked hard at it.

"That's great. I hope they enjoy it, but once they come in Wednesday, the focus is now on New England."

With their 10-9 victory over the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the Panthers are as relevant as they've been in five years. In Week 14 of the 2008 season, 9-3 Carolina welcomed 9-3 Tampa Bay but wasn't very welcoming, rolling to a 38-23 victory on Monday Night Football.

Next week, Monday Night Football will return to Bank of America Stadium for the first time since, when the 6-3 Panthers face the 7-2 Patriots. The hype machine will be working overtime leading up to the matchup – as well it should – and Rivera does want his players to enjoy the fruits of their labor.


"I'll give you an example," Rivera said. "Thomas Davis. To me, his story (of rebounding from three ACL tears in the same knee) is a big-time story. I don't know if it got the attention it deserved. If you're winning games, doing things the right way, people pay attention.

"It's a tremendous story that people should pay attention to because it's about never giving up, never quitting, chasing your dream and then succeeding because of hard work."

But at the same time – and it's a big "but" – the coaching staff is guarding hard against players basking in the glow and getting burned.

"I'm thankful that it's a big stage for our guys and for this city and organization. Outside of that, we've got a football game to play," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "I hope the fans can enjoy it and be loud for us because we'll need that. We'll feed off that energy.

"But outside of that, we've got a whole week of work to put in to give ourselves a chance to win. That's really what it's all about."

And the players, seemingly to a man, are getting that.

Witness quarterback Cam Newton on the podium each Wednesday. When asked about the potential long-term repercussions of the next game, he consistently says he's only interested in being 1-0 at the end of the day. And it doesn't come across as coach-speak, or in this case player-speak. He means it.

Or how about safety Mike Mitchell in the cramped visiting locker room following the 49ers game? He was so fired up that his next-door neighbor Davis asked him why he was answering questions so loud. Yet at the end of an impassioned statement about how the Panthers had made a statement, he said this in a still-boisterous voice:

"We're relevant. We're here. And we've got the biggest game Monday night. It's the biggest game because it's the next game. We look forward to preparing to try to win it."

The phrase "taking it one game at a time" is as enduring a sports cliché as there is, so much so that when athletes rotely repeat it, sportswriters routinely tune it out.

In this case, though, they should listen. The Panthers are reading their press clippings, allowing themselves to pat themselves on the back for finally gaining some notice. But then they're setting that aside – setting everything aside – and showing a singular focus on the task at hand.

So far.

"They deserve that, but we don't want to lose sight of why we won five in a row and six out of our last seven. It's because we've stayed focused on that team in front of us," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "The season changes all the time – every two or three weeks it's going to change – so you can't lose sight of what you're doing while understanding that things around you are going to change."

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