Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera after an interception by the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on November 17, 2019.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera after an interception by the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on November 17, 2019. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - An NFL season can be broken down into quarters.

In the first quarter of 2019, the Panthers lost their starting quarterback and still managed to go 2-2. In the second, Carolina shined, winning three of its next four games.

But in the just completed third quarter, the Panthers went 0-4, including Sunday's loss to previously 2-9 Washington.

Now Carolina has four games left to prove what this football team is capable of. After playing 12 games and going 5-7, coach Ron Rivera acknowledged that the time for saying the team is still growing has passed.

"This football team is a good young football team, it is developing and growing, but that's no excuse," Rivera said. "As I said, people talk about the process, it's a process. But the process has to be over at some point and time. You can keep talking about the process, you're just handicapping yourself because you're giving yourself an excuse. Now is no longer a time for a process, we're well into the last phase of the season, we've got to buck it up and step it up and play football."

The Panthers feature a young quarterback in Kyle Allen, who has been developing throughout the season, as evidenced by his play in New Orleans a week ago, but then his rollercoaster-type season was on display once again vs. Washington. They have an inexperienced kicker in Joey Slye and an offensive line, which has been reshuffled many times, that includes two rookies.

Rivera likes to say that it takes about 5,000 snaps for a young player to feel comfortable, but Carolina can't use that as an excuse for disappointing finishes in December, as he alluded to. At some point, even a young team needs to have grown enough to win those games.

As the defense especially continues to struggle, rumors about Rivera's future only continue to mount. The mood surrounding the Panthers has subdued, and the number of reasons for why Carolina fell short against Washington could go on and on. Instead of shying away from how tough the loss is, the coach was blunt Monday.

"The truth of the matter is every loss you take personally," Rivera said. "I take (it) personally because I feel like I let a lot of people down. Do I sleep well? No, I don't. Do I think about a lot of things? Absolutely. Do I know how I get to work in the morning after a loss? No. All I know is I got in the car and next thing you know I'm at the stadium.

"Every one of them grinds me and that's the way it is because I feel responsible. So I do lose a lot of sleep, and like I said, I do think about a lot of things to try and get things correct."

Correcting matters for the last quarter will help the perception of the season, but it's not going to be easy. Three of the last four games are against teams in the playoff hunt (Seahawks, Colts and Saints) and the Panthers have been dealing with injuries to key players all season long. But so has every other NFL team.

A couple weeks ago, Panthers owner David Tepper said that he would not accept mediocrity and Rivera echoed something similar last week. Monday, Rivera shared that he has been talking with Tepper and that he understands his perspective and the expectations.

"Mr. Tepper has been really fair, really honest, really open and I really appreciate his support on things," Rivera said. "But again, this is football. Like I've told you folks before, I get it. I understand it. And all I can do is control what I can and we'll continue to work hard, continue to practice hard and play hard."

How much these next four games play into his future remains unknown, but there is a point, either way, of finishing on a high note. For a team that in four losses needed only a yard or two to win or tie, it might be too late to finish this season feeling good about anything. Waiting for this team to cross those final yard lines just may not be apart of this team's process.

"When you put yourself in position to win, you've got to be able to make those plays. The biggest thing is, it's about confidence, stepping up to the plate and hitting for the fences while stepping up to the goal line and knocking somebody over and getting into it," Rivera said. "We've got to step it up. I think we've got the players to do it, I still think we're in a dog fight, I know we've got four left to play. We start off with Atlanta and we've got to focus on them."

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