CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Panthers coach Ron Rivera has gone from hot seat to potential NFL coach of the year candidate following Carolina's seven-game winning streak.
The Panthers (8-3) are in the hunt for their first NFC South division title since 2008, something few would have envisioned after Carolina stumbled out of the gate with a 1-3 start for the third straight season under Rivera.
But things changed.
Quarterback Cam Newton has caught fire, Carolina's defense has given up the fewest points in the league, and the Panthers are finding ways to win close games - something they struggled to accomplish early in Rivera's tenure.
The Panthers were 2-14 in games decided by seven points or less under Rivera prior to winning the last three games against San Francisco, New England and Miami with fourth quarter comebacks.
Panthers safety Mike Mitchell called Rivera ''the best coach I've ever played for'' and was among several players Wednesday who said he deserves consideration for coach of the year following the turnaround.
''I mean who else should get it?'' Mitchell said.
There are few candidates, including Andy Reid in Kansas City.
''They ain't played us yet,'' Mitchell said.
''He should be coach of the year,'' fullback Mike Tolbert said. ''We started from the bottom and now we're in the playoff picture.''
The humble Rivera shakes his head at the notion of coach of the year, saying, ''I'd rather be team of the year.''
Rivera, who went 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two seasons in Carolina, said he tried to stick with his beliefs and philosophies through the difficult times.
But he said for him to get better as a coach it meant changing his conservative nature, particularly his in-game decisions.
''To be honest with you I've learned and grown as we went along this year more so than I've realized,'' Rivera said.
He's been more aggressive in his decision making since a Week 2 loss to Buffalo. He opted that day for a late field goal instead of going for the jugular, a decision that would come back to haunt the Panthers who lost 24-23 to the Bills on a touchdown with 2 seconds left.
Said Rivera: ''Not winning that game, and thinking about it as much as I did, I realized that something had to change - or eventually I would be changed.''
Rivera said now he'll watch a game on TV and challenge himself on what he'd do if presented the same situation.
Mitchell said Rivera did a great job of holding the team together when things weren't looking good after a 1-3 start that included blown fourth quarter leads against Seattle and Buffalo.
''He kept reminding us that we were a good football team and we just needed to finish,'' Mitchell said. ''He taught us how to finish.''
Mitchell said Rivera did that coming up with the motto ''win the day,'' something he preached every day before practice.
''He made it a way that was tangible that we could see it, touch it, believe it,'' Mitchell said. ''And everyone has bought into that mentality every day. I really think that's why we're winning.''
Newton said it helped that Rivera's demeanor never changed an iota through good times and bad.
''Absolutely not, and that's why I respect him so much,'' Newton said. ''He's played in the league and he obviously knows what the players need to hear and what they need to see. The trust that we as players need to have in our coach - he's always been the person to bite the bullet, to say 'Hey, blame me.'
''He's been our leader ever since I got here and is doing a great job. He's flourishing this year. But we don't have time to congratulate each other because we have bigger games to win.''
Rivera's Panthers look to extend their winning streak Sunday when they host the resurgent Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have won three straight after beginning the season 0-8.
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