Rivera has to be on short list for top coach

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ron Rivera has to be on the short list for NFL Coach of the Year the way he's transformed the Carolina Panthers into not only playoff contenders, but potential Super Bowl contenders.

Many of his players are lobbying for him already.

Mention it to Rivera and he shakes his head.

"No," the third-year head coach said. "The thing I would love for us is to be the team of the year. We can only do that by winning and looking toward our next game, and that's Tampa [Bay]."

Quarterback Cam Newton, who has surfaced in conversations about NFL Player of the Year, summed it up best.

"If we keep winning, there is going to be a lot of considerations for a lot of people on this team, whether it's Coach, whether it's a player," he said. "We're just keeping our heads down and staying focused.

"Those [awards] are distractions at this point that we really don't need. Our main focus right now should be doing everything in our power to be 9-3."

That means extending the league's longest winning streak to eight games with a victory Sunday against Tampa Bay (3-8). A loss at Bank of America Stadium and the Panthers (8-3) would fall into a large group of teams with playoff aspirations instead of the small group they're in now.

A loss and next week's NFC South showdown against New Orleans (9-2) would have less significance if the Saints beat Seattle on Monday night.

A loss and Arizona's Bruce Arians, Kansas City's Andy Reid, Philadelphia's Chip Kelly and others may push Rivera down the list for postseason accolades.

"I do mean it when I say our next most important game is going to be Tampa Bay," Rivera said. "I know what is going to be after Tampa. A lot of people are pointing it out.

"But hey, you know what? There is no after that if we don't take care of business first and foremost. I led off with that in my opening remarks to the players as we started preparing for Tampa Bay."

That the Panthers defeated the Bucs 31-13 last month in Tampa might make this seem like an easy win for some, but Rivera won't hear of it. He only has to mention last week's 20-16 victory over Miami in which Carolina didn't take the lead until 43 seconds remained.

He only has to mention that Tampa has won three straight, and its lone loss since losing to Carolina was a 27-24 overtime setback to the Seahawks, arguably the best team in the NFC.

He only has to mention that the Bucs are no different than last year's Carolina team that won its last four games and five of its last six, playing with nothing to lose.

Those things aside, Rivera does deserve strong consideration for coach of the year. He has taken a team that began the season 1-3 into the national spotlight. He has done it by keeping players focused and remaining consistent with the same message he preached when things weren't going so well.

"He's the same guy," running back Mike Tolbert said.

Tolbert knows his coach better than most, having been at San Diego when Rivera was the defensive coordinator. When rumors circulated that Rivera could be fired before the bye week if the team went 0-3, Tolbert hurt for his coach because he believed in him.

Now Tolbert believes it's time to reward Rivera with a contract extension even though his coach has one year remaining on his original four-year deal.

"He needs one," Tolbert said. "He hasn't talked about it, but I've read rumors and heard things of that nature. Hopefully, he gets it."

Rivera isn't interested in talking about that, either. That would take the focus off the next game, and it's doubtful he would let even his long-term security stand in the way of that.

But it's obvious players like Rivera, in part because he is a former player -- linebacker for the Chicago Bears from 1984-92 -- and he's consistent.

"That's why I respect him so much," Newton said. "He's played in the league, one. He obviously knows what the players need to hear, what the players need to see, and the trust that us as players need to have in our coach.

"But we don't have time to congratulate each other just yet. We still have even bigger games to win."