Ron Rivera has Panthers on a roll

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talks to some players during the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Bill Haber) Show caption
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talks to some players during the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

“We were able to get the type of players we were kind of looking for and I think we had three really good draft classes. We’ve done well in free agency, and it’s kind of now all coming to fruition.” RON RIVERA, Panthers coach

When the Carolina Panthers defeated the New Orleans Saints in the 2012 season finale, Panthers second-year coach Ron Rivera sounded for all the world like he wouldn’t be back for a third season.

Even after winning five of his last six games, a stretch capped by an emotional 44-38 win against the Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Rivera had to wait several days to find out if he would return — including a Black Monday on which seven fellow head coaches were fired.

Rivera eventually survived, just like he did following a 1-3 start this season, but now is riding an eight-game winning streak heading into Sunday night’s key showdown against the Saints in the Superdome.

The eight-game winning streak gives the 9-3 Panthers, who are tied with the Saints atop the NFC South standings, a 14-4 mark since Rivera opened 2012 with a 2-8 record — the same as he did after 10 games of his rookie season.

Finally, after going 8-18 to start his career, things have changed in a big way for Rivera and the Panthers.

They feel they’re in position to overtake the Saints at the top of the NFC South considering they play Sunday night and just 14 days later in Charlotte, N.C. — two games that will likely determine the division winner and perhaps give one of them a first-round playoff bye.

Rivera said Wednesday on a conference call it was just a matter of time, something a lot of people thought he didn’t have late last fall, before the Panthers put it all together.

“I think (the team) has gelled over a period of time,” he said. “This team has gone through a lot. … Not just since I’ve been here, but before I got here.

“We were able to get the type of players we were kind of looking for and I think we had three really good draft classes,” Rivera added. “We’ve done well in free agency, and it’s kind of now all coming to fruition.”

An offense that is capably run by third-year quarterback Cam Newton and a defense that ranks second in total yards allowed (they’re second against the run and sixth against the pass) has fueled the Panthers’ strong run since falling to 1-3 with a 22-6 loss to Arizona on Oct. 6.

Even after their strong finish last season, Rivera knew the Panthers needed to add some more pieces to the puzzle through the draft and free agency.

It didn’t hurt that they already had the NFL’s top offensive and defensive rookies from the past two years — Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly — on the roster.

“It was all about this team just continuing to grow and develop and getting the draft picks,” Rivera said. “I mean, if you don’t have the players and you don’t hit on your draft picks, it doesn’t matter what you did the year before.”

While the offense had playmakers in Newton, a dual-threat quarterback, and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart as well as wide receiver Steve Smith, the play on defense has been the surprise.

Even after finishing 10th in total yards last season, they’ve been everything Rivera hoped they would be with defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy anchoring the line with Kuechly patrolling the middle.

The Panthers lead the league in fewest points allowed at 13.1 per game and are tied for second in takeaways with 26.

“We had an opportunity to be better,” Rivera said. “With some of the decisions we made in the draft and some of the free agents that have come through for us, and our young guys playing very well, has helped this team.

“That’s a big part of why we’ve had our success.”