Thomas Davis is clear about this: As obtuse as football players sometimes feign to be, they're not blind. They read newspapers. They're not deaf. They hear the talking heads on TV.
The 11-1 finish, the dominant defense, the smart offense, the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed, the Sunday divisional-round showdown against the San Francisco 49ers -- it's all a story of loyalty. Of players to their coach. Of players to their teammates. Of a coach and owner to their players.
It was just less than two seasons ago that Davis sat in a meeting room, with Rivera, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, then-general manager Marty Hurney and team trainer Ryan Vermillion. Davis was coming off the third ACL tear -- and reconstruction -- of his right knee. No one had ever heard of a pro athlete who'd come back after destroying the same ligament in the same knee three times.
Rivera and Richardson, they looked at this then-28-year-old man -- a linebacker who would always need lateral motion, who would always need to backpedal -- and said: If you're willing to put yourself through this again, we're willing to give you another opportunity.
That fall, he started 12 games, logged 105 tackles and gained a whole new respect for this game, and the men who are a part of it. This season, he has started all 16 games, posting 123 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions. And this week, as he readied for this return to playoff football, he said "absolutely" Rivera is a part of why he's here.
"That someone was willing to take a chance on me was motivation enough," Davis said. "If they had told me, 'Thomas, your knee has not been holding up, we're going to have to let you go,' I would've been more than understanding. I would've been OK with that. The fact that they were willing to stick by me -- that speaks volumes for this organization.
"I'm one of those people," he said quietly, "who always wants to make the people who believe in me proud."
The organization and pride were what Davis thought about 14 weeks ago, after an ugly 22-6 loss at Arizona dropped Carolina to 1-3 and led to wide receiver Steve Smith corralling all the Panthers for a players-only airing-out. Smith stood up and told his teammates their coach wasn't the only one on notice; that if they didn't play better, they'd all lose their jobs, too. He never named names, but he called out the offense, the defense and the special teams. He definitely, Davis said, ruffled some feathers.
But Smith pulled something out of his teammates, too. He reignited their competitiveness. He made sure, Davis said, "everyone was accountable."
"No one could say they had put together a perfect game in that 1-3 start," Davis said. "It was simple stuff that was costing us games, and Steve made clear, everyone needed to dig down and do a self-evaluation. The egos on this team went out the door. We started playing for each other."
And for their coach, too. Rivera was an All-American linebacker at Cal, a nine-year pro with the Chicago Bears and a Super Bowl winner. He knows what it's like to play in this league. He gets the grind of practice, he gets when practice needs to be amped up and he's always had an open door. He is, Davis said, "the ultimate player's coach."
"Guys feel very confident going to Coach Rivera and asking, 'Guys are hurt, can we scale it back?' Most of the time when we go ask things of him, if it's within reason, he doesn't hesitate," Davis said. "He definitely relates to us."
And they to him, particularly, Davis said, because he's a good man. He's a wickedly proud father, one who'll catch softball pitches from his daughter Courtney -- who's at UCLA now and pitched for Puerto Rico at the World Cup of Softball this summer -- after practice in the summertime. Davis said all the Panthers see the palpable feeling Rivera emotes when he speaks of his family, of his college-sweetheart wife and his son.
"He's so understanding of different situations, on the field and in life. A guy like that, we all want to do whatever it takes to make sure he has the security he deserves," Davis said.
All season long, Rivera has been even. It's his nature. He met a reporter at the NFL Scouting Combine this past February and as they walked the long hallways of the Indianapolis Convention Center, he told of getting a phone call from his mother the day after last season ended. She'd just heard from his brother he'd been fired. He reassured his mother he still had a job before phoning his brother to chastise him for believing blog reports. And he laughed at the telling of this story, never expressing anger, never suggesting worry over the fickleness of his profession.
Not too low (at 1-3), not too high (along an eight-game win streak) and leading a team that feeds off that calm. His players appreciate the chances he started taking on them in Week 3, going for a touchdown instead of a field goal, believing -- correctly -- they'd come through. And yes, his players get into it, too, when Rivera tries talking trash, summoning the Bears defenses of his playing days.
"We hear all the time about those great linebackers and that great defense of the Chicago Bears," Davis laughed, his eye-roll discernible even over a phone line.
For all the dynamism of Carolina's wunderkind quarterback, Cam Newton, and his four fourth-quarter comebacks, it's the Panthers' defense that makes this team go. It's the defense that sacked Colin Kaepernick six times in the first meeting with San Francisco -- a 10-9 Panthers win. It's the defense that finished with an NFL-high 60 sacks (15 of which came in the last two weeks, against Drew Brees and Matt Ryan) and a second-best 15.1 points allowed per game. And it's the defense, Davis says, that everyone should observe come Sunday.
"Watch and see how inspired we go out and play this game," he said.
Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.