Panthers struggling with keeping leads

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> The Carolina Panthers problem hasn't been building big leads this season, it has been keeping them.

Four times the Panthers have led by 17 points or more in the second half, only to watch an opponent storm back. All four games the Panthers have escaped with wins, but far too often it has been too close for comfort.

Coach Ron Rivera said he's "concerned" about his team's struggles closing out games, but refused to dwell on it as the Panthers stepped up preparations for Sunday's NFC championship game against the Arizona Cardinals.

"I'll be honest, I get it, I understand," Rivera said after the Panthers nearly squandered a 31-point halftime lead last weekend but held on to beat the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 in the divisional playoffs.

"But, shoot, we won those football games and look at who we played against. If this was someone that was 2-14 that did this to us, then I'd be really concerned. But it wasn't. Am I concerned? Yeah. But are these things correctable and fixable? Most certainly. Let's stay focused on what we did — we won the football game."

Sunday wasn't the first time the Panthers have flirted with an epic collapse.

Carolina surrendered a 17-point fourth quarter lead in Week 8 to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, falling behind by a field goal in overtime before rallying to win 29-26.

The following week against Green Bay a 23-point fourth quarter lead dwindled to eight before Thomas Davis sealed the win with a pick in the end zone in the final two minutes.

And in late December the Panthers seemed to be cruising to an easy win against the New York Giants before a 28-point lead slipped away. It took a late drive by Cam Newton and a winning field goal by Graham Gano as time expired for the Panthers to slip away with a win.

Rivera said the common denominator in those four games was facing a top-tier quarterback, referring to Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Eli Manning.

"When you get a big lead like that, one of the things is you have to learn to not relax," Rivera said. "You have to learn to continue to attack. It is one of those things that we most certainly as coaches have to make sure we are putting them in the right positon to do those things."

Having a large lead isn't easy on either coordinator.

Offensively, teams are expected to run time off the clock. Defensively, you can't give up the big play.

That tends to lend itself to a conservative mindset.

"It's a fine line in keeping it wide open and also trying to call plays that are really good that also will keep the clock moving," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said.

Newton said the Panthers too often have "let the foot off the throttle" and lacked a killer instinct against Seattle.

"Our philosophy, at times, was just to play keep-away," Newton said Sunday's win.

He knows the Panthers can't afford to take the same approach if they get in a similar position Sunday against the high-powered Cardinals, who have the league's top-ranked offense.

Regardless, tight end Greg Olsen said playing with a big lead is never easy.

"You are up 31-0 and you don't want to give them life, you want don't want to give them a spark," Olsen said. "You want to continue to keep your aggression and all of that, but it's hard. You also don't want to do anything silly and take a big chance and give up a big play."


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