When asked earlier in the week about needs for next season, Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule didn’t hesitate, almost defiantly saying he wasn't looking past finding a way to beat Washington and the coach he replaced.
And that’s exactly what his team did on Sunday, putting Washington’s playoff hopes on hold with a 20-13 victory over former Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
If Rhule were thinking about next year, he would have found a way to throw the game and move Carolina (5-10) a step closer to the third pick of the NFL draft after the Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1) won earlier in the day.
But Rhule isn’t concerned about the draft or where the Panthers pick in April.
He is trying to build a winning culture, and there’s only one way to do that – win, even if it’s a meaningless December game in terms of the playoff picture.
Washington could have clinched the NFC East title with a victory over Rivera’s former team. Instead, it appeared the Panthers were the team that had everything to play for, and that’s something Rhule can build around.
Wins have been few and far between for Rhule during this rebuilding process. In fact, the Panthers entered Sunday with three consecutive losses and eight in their past nine games.
They had become adept at finding ways to lose, not win. And thanks to a defense that is beginning to play at a winning level, Rhule has something to look forward to in 2021 besides a top-10 draft pick.
Rodgers passed for only 44 yards in the second half, and the Packers had just 49 total yards the final two quarters, but Carolina just couldn’t complete the comeback.
No comeback was needed at Washington, with the Panthers' defense forcing three first-half turnovers and special teams scoring on a muffed punt to give Carolina a 20-3 lead.
It was a style reminiscent of the play of Rivera’s Carolina teams the past nine seasons.
Rhule respects what Rivera did. The organization showed love and respect for Rivera during pregame warm-ups, wearing “Rivera Strong" sweatshirts with a pink cancer ribbon replacing the “i" in the Washington coach’s name.
Quarterback breakdown: This wasn’t Teddy Bridgewater’s best performance, but the defense played so well all he had to do was manage the game and not lose it. In terms of making a statement for him being the long-term starter, he still hasn’t made it.
Troubling trend: Joey Slye with a miscue on Sunday has now missed seven extra points over two seasons. Rhule didn’t show confidence in Slye to attempt a 52-yard field goal early in this contest, which likely spells the end of his tenure at Carolina, even though Rhule is committed to Slye through the final game.
Biggest hole in the game plan: Left tackle. The Panthers already were thin, with starter Russell Okung (calf) inactive and Greg Little on injured reserve. Trent Scott was holding his own, but when he left with a shoulder issue, guard/tackle Michael Schofield struggled mightily.