Panthers score some points for Rivera

What happened Sunday should make Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson think long and hard.

What happened Sunday just might save coach Ron Rivera’s job. The Panthers played their best game of the year, defeating the Atlanta Falcons, 30-20, at Bank of America Stadium.

“It was outstanding to put a whole game together,’’ veteran wide receiver Steve Smith said. “It’s unfortunate that it has taken us (so long) to figure it out. But, you know we’re getting things slowly but surely.’’

Maybe Richardson’s patience with Rivera grew a little bit with a solid all-around victory against the team that might be Carolina’s biggest rival. Maybe this was a sign of progress for a team that had struggled to protect leads and win tight games up until Sunday.

Rivera said recently that Richardson had told him he needed to see the Panthers finish the season on an upswing. It’s pretty obvious Richardson likes Rivera and would like to keep him, but needs to see some progress to justify that.

Was this win enough to guarantee Rivera will be back for a third season?

Probably not all by itself. The Panthers still need to play well in their three remaining games -- against the Chargers, Raiders and Saints.

But the victory against Atlanta might have been a start. Heck, when you look at the big picture, there might have been some earlier signs of progress. Quarterback Cam Newton, who got off to a rough start, has played better the last six games.

Newton was at his best Sunday, completing 23 of 35 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns and rushing nine times for 116 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown run that put the Panthers up 23-0.

“I think this whole offense is clicking,’’ Newton said. “We just have to connect the dots.’’

The defense, which was playing its fourth and fifth safeties and third and fourth defensive tackles due to injuries, also clicked. The Panthers held the Falcons to 35 yards of total offense in the first half.

The defense, which had collapsed plenty of times earlier in the season, was firm enough to hold off a second-half rally by Atlanta.

“Man, if we could have played like this all year; our offense throwing points, our defense shutting the running game down and the secondary,'' cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We contained those guys. If we could have done this all year, we could be 11-1. We want to win the rest of them and see what happens.’’

If the Panthers can win the rest of them -- or something close -- Richardson might look at the future and decide Rivera needs to remain a part of his team.