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Tonight, it’s Ron Rivera’s time to shine

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Usually we criticize Rivera’s conservative approach. This time it’s different.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Between the Tuesday Turtle Spotlight, the occasional Monday Morning Optimist, and various miscellaneous articles interspersed throughout the last twelve months, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has received his fair share of criticism here on Cat Scratch Reader. The classic, grind-it-out style of football he has openly spoken in favor of is going the way of the dodo, and his insistence on sticking to it has likely cost the Panthers their fair share of games. However, that style of play gives the Panthers their best shot at upsetting the New Orleans Saints tonight.

The Saints are a better football team than the Panthers. They’re better on offense. They’re better on defense. They’ve only lost one of their last 12 games, and that was a Thursday night road game against a streaking Dallas Cowboys team. They’re second in the NFL in scoring, averaging 34.4 points per game and their defense is coming around of late, holding five straight opponents under 20 points. The Saints are a juggernaut. The Panthers are anything but.

Drew Brees and the Saints offense average 3.48 points per drive and have a drive success rate of .810, both best in the league. The Panthers average 2.40 points per drive and have a drive success rate of .753. Over the course of the season, the two defenses are roughly equal in those metrics, but the Saints’ unit is trending up while the Panthers’ is going the other way. The more drives that take place on Monday night, the more likely it is that the Saints will put up points and run away with the game.

Ron Rivera and his coaching staff have always tried to slow the game down and keep things close. That style is detrimental to the team when they are superior to their opponent. That’s not the case tonight. Tonight, the Panthers need to be deliberate on offense. They need to take care of the ball and use as much clock as possible on their way to scoring touchdowns. On defense, they need to prevent the Saints from hitting on any big plays. Every drive needs to take as long as possible.

If the Panthers do that, they have a chance. A game with fewer possessions is more likely to be heavily influenced by a couple plays here and there. There’s a smaller sample of possessions, so there’s intrinsically more variance in such contests. That variance could just as likely result in a Panthers win as a Panthers loss. As that sample size increases and the variance dissipates, it becomes more and more likely that the Saints will walk out of Bank of America Stadium with a win.

This is the perfect game for Ron Rivera to do what he likes to do. It won’t guarantee a win by any means, but it gives the Panthers their best chance. As a head coach, that’s all he can do.