Panthers spoil former coach Ron Rivera’s playoff party

Carolina snapped a three-game losing streak with a win over Washington

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera, right, greeting Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon Zylstra (16) on the field at the end of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Landover, Md. Carolina won 20-13. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Carolina Panthers got a win over former coach Ron Rivera on Sunday, beating Rivera’s Washington Football Team 20-13 in D.C., but revenge didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind.

Many of the players who starred for Rivera during his nine years as Panthers coach followed him out of town following last season, which took some of the steam out of the team’s trip to Washington, where Rivera was hired after being fired late last season in Carolina.

Rivera has also battled cancer this season, so any hard feelings about his departure from Carolina were erased by his former players’ concern for his health.

Several Panthers wore hoodies bearing the message “Rivera Strong” while warming up before the game.

“it was very important for the guys that played for him previously,” running back Mike Davis said. “And we understand the things that he was going through. We just wanted to let him know that we have his support, we were thinking about him and we have his back.”

“Coach Rivera is somebody that is like family to me,” defensive back Donte Jackson said. “He’s a guy who is always genuine, he always put his players first, he always took the fall for players when he shouldn’t have, and it’s just a respect thing. It’s bigger than football, it’s bigger than coach and player, it’s just family. Even guys who didn’t play for Coach had to talk to some of the players who did play for Coach and that’s why you see guys who didn’t even know Coach Rivera and didn’t play for him have these hoodies on.”

Three thoughts

1. Rivera downplayed any revenge storylines in the run-up to the game, and he had more important things on his mind than the reunion afterward.

Washington had a chance to clinch the NFC East with a win. Instead, the team will have to beat Philadelphia next week to close the season, and it’s unclear who will be starting at quarterback.

Rivera benched Dwayne Haskins in the fourth quarter, and backup Taylor Heinicke led a late comeback. Haskins was fined and stripped of his captain’s title last week after attending a stripper party in violation of COVID protocol. Rivera made the controversial decision of allowing him to start the game, however, then watched as the Panthers built a 20-0 lead following a pair of Haskins interceptions.

2. The Panthers got an early boost from special teams after Washington return man Steven Sims muffed a punt at the 13. Carolina’s Brandon Zylstra recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Special teams gives and special teams takes away, however, as kicker Joey Slye then missed the extra point.

3. In addition to Rivera, several former Panthers are on the Washington roster, including Thomas Davis, Jordan Kunaszyk, Jordan Norris and Cole Luke. The chance to catch up with their former coach and teammates had to wait until postgame for the Carolina players, however.

“Yeah of course, I got to talk to all of them,” Tre Boston said. “Like I told you all, before the game I wasn’t talking to any of them. I ain’t going to lie. I told y’all I was there for one objective and that was to win.

“We’re in the middle of a dog fight, and when you’ve got your friends between the lines, it’s only bragging rights to who knocked who out, who got the win, so after the game I told y’all I’d be ha-ha laughing with those guys and we were. Fortunately, we got the win. They didn’t and I told you, we’ll have a dinner or a lunch in Charlotte with these guys later on this offseason, hopefully COVID allows that.”

Number to Know

1,000 — Mike Davis didn’t find much rushing room, gaining just 28 yards on 14 carries, but it was enough for him to top the 1,000-yard mark for the season.

Davis became emotional after the game, talking about the milestone.

“I just think about my dad,” he said. “I really wish that he could really see everything that I’m out here doing. I’m trying not to tear up. Man, my dad had such a big impact on my life, and I know he’d be so happy to see me get one-K yards, man. I just know he’d be really happy right now. He’d be jumping for joy. He’d be having fun. I just know he’d be happy for me.”

They Said It

“Winning franchises win. They win at everything. It’s hard for me to even think that way because it’s just something my mind doesn’t work that way. We’re here to win. We have a locker room full of guys who want to win, they’ve won their whole life. Sometimes you guys will ask me like, ‘Do you have to learn how to win?’ Well, if you believe that if you never actually win, then you won’t learn how to win.”

— Panthers coach Matt Rhule on losing to improve draft position with the playoffs off the table

Player of the Game

Curtis Samuel, Panthers — The wide receiver was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 52 yards on seven carries, including a 45-yarder. He also had five catches for a team-high 106 yards.

“He’s been a guy that does whatever we ask him to do. Plays tailback, plays wide out, blocks, made a bunch of big catches today,” Rhule said. “I thought that run was really a special run that he made helping us in the run game. We knew we had to run the ball 35 times to win the game and we ran it 35 times.

“He’s just an all-purpose guy and he’s a tough guy, and I think when your best players are tough-minded, you know hard-working guys, you have a chance to win. I think every time Curtis makes a play everyone’s excited.”

Critical thinking

The loss dropped Washington to 6-9, clinching a losing record for the team. That means Rivera has still had only three winning seasons in 10 years as an NFL head coach. Since reaching the Super Bowl in the 2015 season, his record is 35-40.