Big game? Against 49ers? C'mon

Ron Rivera has the Panthers treating San Francisco just like any other team. AP Photo/G. Newman Lowrance

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I tried my best to get Ron Rivera to back off this one-game-at-a-time approach. I tried to make the coach of the Carolina Panthers realize that Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park isn't just big because it's the next game on the schedule, that it's big because of the team records and what it could mean to the NFC playoffs.

I tried to get him to think like a fan, asking if he had a choice between the New England Patriots and 49ers or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars during an off day which he would watch.

He didn't bite.

"I'd watch them both,'' Rivera said with a laugh. "I would watch who we are about to play, first and foremost. Honestly, when I'm not here, I'm not watching football.''

This is why the Panthers (5-3) have won four straight and five of their last six games to make this West Coast trip big. They don't look ahead. They don't look at the 49ers (6-2), the defending NFC Champions, any differently than they do the winless Bucs.

It's admirable.

It's also frustrating.

You want somebody to say this game is huge, because it is. A win over San Francisco would make a statement that none of the other five games against opponents that are a collective 9-33 did. It would say the Panthers are a serious contender to not only make the playoffs, but possibly be relevant in the postseason.

The analysts might begin talking about them as a contender for the NFC South title instead of a wild card spot. They trail New Orleans by a game with two games left against the Saints.

But those, apparently, are the thoughts of analysts and fans who can let their minds wander into the future. Rivera has this group focused on the present like a fighter pilot on his target.

And when they appeared to lose that focus just a bit in Friday's practice, he reigned them back in and re-focused them. That's how Carolina became relevant. That's how it will remain relevant.

Asked how he personally was handling being relevant, Rivera didn't waiver from what he tells the team.

"The big thing, we're trying to maintain this as a one game at a time attitude,'' he said. "This is a big game, but it's the next big game.''

I get it. So have the players. They've bought into this lock, stock and barrel. Rivera saw it happening towards the end of last season when the Panthers won their last four games and five of their last six.

"It's a very, very unique thing,'' safety Mike Mitchell said. "I've heard coaches say it in the past, but it's genuine in the way we prepare and the way [Rivera] teaches and coaches us.

"What he talks about in the meetings and the private settings on the team, he really believes the biggest game is the next game and it trickles it down to us.''

Rivera doesn't have to look hard for examples as to why you can't treat the 49ers differently from the Buccaneers. Most of them saw the same Tampa Bay they dismantled the week before go up 21-0 on NFC powerhouse Seattle before losing in overtime.

"That's why you have to prepare for the next game as your biggest game,'' Mitchell said "If you don't, you're going to get your butt beat.''

Player by player, each said the same thing. Nobody diverted. Defensive end Greg Hardy is so focused he claimed not to be aware of all the controversy going on in Miami.

"Something going on?'' he said. "What happened?''

The blinders definitely are on. The closest anybody came to saying this is a big game was wide receiver Steve Smith, but he did it in a snarky way.

"We haven't played in a game in November of relevance since 2008,'' he said. "Luke (Kuechly, starting middle linebacker) was just graduating high school. That statistic is the most irrelevant statistic according to this locker room of the current players that you could possibly pull out of your ass.''

Rivera has willed his mentality onto the team well. But he does understand a win over the 49ers would be big.

"That would be big,'' he said. "As you guys like to remind me, they have a winning record. That would be really good. First and foremost, who they are as a football team. They're defending NFC Champs. Secondly, their style of play. They're a very physical football team.

"This also is a very talented football team, so you want to be able to beat teams like. You want to be able to beat teams that have a lot, because you're measuring yourself against them. That, I think, is important. It's a great opportunity for us to find out exactly who we are and where we're headed.''

But it's only big because it's the next game.

I get it.