Jan 25, 2013 00:16 Panthers have big decisions to make Panthers have big decisions to make STEVE REED| AP sportswriter Jan. 25, 2013 Comments Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera watches from the sideline prior to the start of the NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The time for Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to make several critical decisions is drawing near. With one week left in the season, Richardson will need to make a pair of decisions in the coming weeks that will dramatically shape the future of the organization. Richardson must determine who’ll be the team’s next general manager and whether to keep coach Ron Rivera around for another season. Richardson could not be reached for comment on Monday. Rivera, who is 12-19 in two seasons as Panthers coach, said Monday he hasn’t had any recent discussions with Richardson about his future. He said he expects to meet with Richardson after the season, which ends Sunday against New Orleans. “There have been no assurances” from Richardson, Rivera said, regarding his future with the team. “Mr. Richardson has been steady just like he’s always been.” Right now Rivera said his focus is on preparing for the Saints on Sunday and finishing 7-9, which would be a one-game improvement over his first season with the Panthers. “We’ll see once it’s all said and done,” Rivera said. To his credit, Rivera has been able to keep his team together after a 2-8 start, and the Panthers have won four of their past five games, including three straight. One of those wins came against the Atlanta Falcons, the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. “I think we’re doing some really good things, and I like the way the guys have stayed focused and some of the things the guys said after the game about playing for each other,” Rivera said. “That is very gratifying for a coach, knowing that they’re hearing the messages the coaches are sending. I appreciate their focus to the details of preparing. We have done a lot of good things.” When asked if he deserves to be back next season, Rivera said, “I look forward to the opportunity, and it’s something that will be dealt with when the season is over.” Rivera, a former linebacker with the Chicago Bears, is well-liked by players and many have said it would be a mistake to fire him. Rivera has two years left on his contract. “It is great to fight for a guy that believes in us,” receiver Steve Smith said following Carolina’s 17-6 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. “We believe in him. It’s just a great way to show our appreciation for someone. The tolerance he has for our mistakes he takes the blame for, and gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Hey look at our coach. Look at what he is doing for us.’ ” As for the GM search, Richardson hired former Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi as a consultant to find a replacement for Marty Hurney, who was fired after a 1-5 start. However, Richardson has been mum regarding the direction of that process from the start, and Accorsi hasn’t returned phone calls seeking comment about which candidates he plans to recommend. Because of his ties to New York, Giants director of college scouting Marc Ross is one potential candidate that could get attention, but Richardson can’t speak to any potential candidates until after their teams are finished playing. Brandon Beane is serving as Carolina’s interim general manager and is also viewed as a candidate. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he believes Richardson made a good call in hiring Accorsi as a consultant. Blank hired Accorsi to help with his GM search in 2008. Blank said at the time, Thomas Dimitroff, whom he eventually hired, wasn’t even on his short list of candidates before Accorsi recommended him for the job. Dimitroff has been a huge success in Atlanta. “Ernie was very helpful in the process, and he wasn’t afraid to think outside of the box,” Blank said. “He’s very knowledgeable, and he knows talent as a general manager. Thomas was a really good hire for us. Jerry is a very bright owner, and I think he made a wise decision enlisting Ernie’s help for input.” The Panthers (6-9) have not made the playoffs since 2008.