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Watch for return of Panthers’ Riverboat Ron’

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CHARLOTTE — When the Carolina Panthers lost to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 11, it was easy to question Ron Rivera’s end-of-the-game decisions.

Carolina’s coach defended himself in the immediate aftermath, but a month later, he now admits to second-guessing his plan during the 19-17 heartbreaker.

“I was conservative there,” River said Monday, less than a week before the Panthers’ rematch with the Falcons that will decide the NFC South title. “I thought we could grind it out.”

In the first meeting, the man nicknamed “Riverboat Ron” deferred aggression. He instead opted for a strategy that called for three straight runs after the Panthers drove to the Falcons’ 32-yard line with 1:42 left.

Rivera wanted Atlanta to use its remaining timeouts, which it did. But the plan was ultimately undone when kicker Graham Gano hooked his 46-yard go-ahead attempt wide left.

“It’s a fine line between second-guessing yourself and learning from it,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Monday. “When it doesn’t work there is always a tendency to do that.”

But considering how they played in late-game situations the last two weeks, second-guessing may have helped the Panthers. With what Rivera termed “lessons learned,” he charged his team to be more aggressive while it held on to one-score leads.

Up by two with 3:11 to go against the Bucs in Week 15, the Panthers picked up a pair of first downs by passing twice in the first three plays of their final drive. And when they were leading by four with just under three minutes to go Sunday against the Browns, quarterback Cam Newton completed a second-down pass to tight end Ed Dickson for a gain of 34 yards.

The Panthers will now head to Atlanta for a winner-take-all game that seemed highly unlikely after the first matchup. Rivera now calls that loss, which was Carolina’s fifth in a six-game skid, “a kick in the gut.”

But while that encouraged the Panthers to be proactive late in games, what they’re doing before that is still an issue. Ranked 27th in red-zone efficiency, they’re still having trouble finishing drives. Against the Falcons, they were 0-for-1 in the red zone, and despite eight trips inside Atlanta territory, the Panthers finished with just 17 points.

“We can’t get down to the red zone and kick field goals. We’ve got to punch it in like we did the last two times we got down there,” Rivera said. “We can’t expect to win this game by kicking field goals.”

So maybe “Riverboat Ron” is back. But instead of gambling on a bunch of fourth-and-1s, Rivera is now willing to go all-in during the game’s final hand.

The Panthers snapped a 10-game winless streak against the AFC North. Their previous win over a team from the division was a 23-21 victory against the Baltimore Ravens Oct. 10, 2006.

The Panthers are now 14-3 under Rivera in the month of December.

Notes: Wide receiver DeAndre Presley, who suffered a concussion Sunday, was placed on injured reserve Monday. … Defensive end Frank Alexander, suspended the first 14 games after twice violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, was added to the active roster Monday.

REPORT CARD VS. BROWNS

–PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus — QB Cam Newton, playing 12 days after breaking two bones in his back during a car accident, was surprisingly effective. A terrible decision to throw the ball after a long scramble ended with an interception, but that was Newton’s only big error of the day. He did a great job keeping his eyes up while scrambling to find RB Jonathan Stewart for his first receiving touchdown since 9/16/12. TE Greg Olsen, who had 10 receptions in each of his last two games, tied a season low in targets and receptions.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus — Stewart was a workhorse again, piling up 122 yards on 24 carries. His 437 rushing yards the last four weeks is the highest total in the NFL during that timeframe. Despite the two broken bones in his back, Newton ran often (12) and well (63 yards and a touchdown).

–PASS DEFENSE: B — The Browns took a fourth-quarter lead with their longest play of the season, an 81-yard pass from QB Brian Hoyer to TE Jordan Cameron. But Hoyer and injured starter Johnny Manziel combined to complete just 10 of their 21 passes for 166 yards. CB Josh Norman picked off his second interception of the year before he fumbled it back on the return.

–RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus — The Browns rushed for 88 yards on 22 carries, the fifth time in the last six games the Panthers have held an opponent to fewer than 100 rushing yards.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: D-plus — K Graham Gano missed his sixth field goal attempt of the season. He had only three misses last year. Coverage teams continue to be leaky. The Browns averaged 12 yards on two punt returns and they also had a 39-yard kickoff return.

–COACHING: B — It wasn’t pretty, but coach Ron Rivera again led the Panthers to a win over a worse team. In their last two games, Carolina has beaten the Bucs and Browns by a combined six points. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s game plan to dominate the game and time of possession worked fine until it came time to scoring plenty of points. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott dialed up a solid game plan that didn’t leave the inept Browns offense much hope for success.


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