Rivera concerned about Panthers' struggles to finish games

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn't thinking about going undefeated or resting players for the postseason even though there are just two weeks remaining in the regular season.

He has more pressing concerns.

With the top seed in the NFC still up for grabs, Rivera is more focused on the Panthers' recent struggles to close out games.

''The biggest thing, more so than anything else, is finishing opponents,'' Rivera said Monday. ''But things happen for a reason.''

While Carolina is still undefeated, Sunday's 38-35 victory over the New York Giants showed Rivera that there's still work to be done.

''Winning does cover up a lot of things,'' Rivera said. ''There were some mistakes that were made that we need to talk about, and we need to get corrected. (But) it's a good opportunity for us as coaches to talk about some of the things that went on in the game, and to use that to our advantage in terms of going forward.''

Three times this season, the Panthers have given up big leads to opponents before pulling out a win in the closing minutes or seconds - against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 8, the Green Bay Packers in Week 9, and Sunday against the Giants.

Carolina had a 35-7 lead late in the third quarter before the Giants rallied, scoring four unanswered touchdowns and tying the game at 35 with 1 minute, 46 seconds remaining.

It took a late drive to set up Graham Gano's 43-yard game-winning field goal as time expired make the Panthers just the fourth team in NFL history to reach 14-0. The others are the Miami Dolphins in 1972, the New England Patriots in 2007 and the Colts in 2009.

''It shouldn't have been a thriller, I can tell you that,'' Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said after the game. ''We just had to find ways. It's great for us to be in a game like this - it's kind of like our first dose of mini-games of what playoff football is going to be about. (But) we have to create that killer instinct.

''We did a terrible job with finishing this game out, and we've just got to create better habits here moving forward.''

Up next for Carolina is the 7-7 Falcons, its NFC South rival. A win by the Panthers would clinch the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage for the playoffs.

''The most important thing right now is obviously getting ready for Atlanta, because there's meaning to this game for us,'' Rivera said.

Carolina last played the Falcons just two weeks ago at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Then, the Panthers turned in a dominating performance in beating Atlanta 38-0, their first shutout since Week 3 of the 2013 season.

That was the Falcons' sixth consecutive loss after opening the season with six wins in their first seven games. But Atlanta ended that losing streak last week by beating the Jacksonville Jaguars 23-17.

''For the coaches, their preparation will be a little quicker - most of the (game) tape has been broken down that they need, and they just have to add the last game,'' Rivera said.

''The hard part is that they're going to be at home. They still have life (as a potential playoff wild card team), and they're a divisional foe,'' Rivera said. ''This is one of those games where we've got to be prepared for them, as much as they're going to be prepared for us.''

Still, Rivera likes the fact that Carolina's final two games - against the Falcons, and next week at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - both have some importance to the Panthers.

That's also when the question of whether to rest starters versus going for an undefeated regular season comes into play.

''These guys are players, and these guys want to play,'' Rivera said. ''Is there a fine line? There probably is, but that's to be decided when we get to the next game.

''I like the fact that there is value (to the Falcons' game) - the most important thing is to win the game, then go from there. It makes the decision easier for this week, but next week is something we'll have to look at. Like I've said, we'll cross that bridge when we get there.''

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