Even after Sunday night’s bruising defeat 31-13 to the New Orleans Saints, the Carolina Panthers sit at 9-4, one game back of the Saints in the NFC South standings and in the lead for the conference’s first Wildcard playoff spot.

Much of that success can be traced to all-world quarterbacking talent of Cam Newton, but also to the unflappable sideline presence of head coach Ron Rivera, who, as recently as two games into the season, had many people calling for his head.

Of course, that was before the Panthers ran off an eight game win-streak that included victories over top-caliber teams like San Francisco and New England. And now Rivera is a front-runner for Coach of the Year honors.

“Beating San Francisco in San Francisco, being able to play toe-to-toe with one of the marquee teams in the league … beating New England at home on Monday night — playing a big-time game against a big-time quarterback and a big-time head coach — that was huge,” Rivera told Fox News Latino on Friday, two days before the Saints game.

But, he adds, all of their nine wins “have been very important.” Not to mention the culmination of a long, strange road.

In 2011, Rivera, 51, became one of the first Latino head coaches in the history of the NFL, following trailblazers like Tom Fears and Tom Flores. Currently, he's the only Latino top coach in the league.

But the former linebacker’s first two years as Panthers coach were anything but easy. Both seasons included slow starts that put Rivera on the hot seat, only to have strong second-half finishes that may have saved his job.

One of Rivera's top criticisms as a coach was that he played things too safe, choosing to punt rather than go for it on short yardage fourth down situations.

This year, he has gambled so frequently that some people have started calling him “Riverboat Ron.”

Rivera grew up in northern California, the child of a Mexican-American mother and a Puerto Rican father. “I feel very fortunate that so many [Latinos] have embraced us, and have embraced me, for that matter,” he said. “To be representative of my heritage, I’m thrilled about that.”

The way Rivera sees it, the increasing number of Latinos in the NFL community “starts with the Raiders,” who won a Super Bowl with Mexican-Americans Jim Plunkett behind center and Tom Flores as head coach.

“Denver has one of the largest Hispanic populations. They’re growing in terms of their loyalty to the Broncos — you see these teams that have large Hispanic communities around them, I think that’s kind of what helps the interest.”

When Rivera entered the league as a rookie with the Chicago Bears in 1984, there were hardly any Latinos in the league. The next year, as a key piece of one of the most ferocious defenses the NFL has ever seen, Rivera became the first player of Puerto Rican descent on a Super Bowl winning team.

“As the interest grows in the Latino community, in the Latin countries, you’re going to see more and more players get involved.”

Rivera grew up around football — the result, he said, of growing up the son of an Army officer, and going from military base to military base, where that was a favorite sport. But his role model growing up was the Hall of Fame Puerto Rican baseball player, Roberto Clemente, who died while trying to get aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972.

“That left a huge impression on me,” Rivera told ESPN last year. “I've always felt it's very important to try to give back to the community.”

Which is why, when he heard about former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez’s legal troubles in the offseason, Rivera was upset.

“Disappointing,” he told Fox News Latino. “We are certainly role models in the community - whether we want to be or not, we have a responsibility to young people,” said Rivera, who worked with the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund when he was in Chicago.

His advice to young Latinos trying to make it to the NFL?

“Give yourself the opportunity to stick to it,” he said. “Look at guys like Tony Gonzalez, Victor Cruz,” both of whom beat the odds and “have come on and had these tremendous careers.”

To his players, Rivera said that the message he has been giving them recently is “the one game at a time attitude.”

The Panthers will need to keep that in mind, not looking past the 6-7 New York Jets this Sunday to their Dec. 22 rematch against the Saints in Charlotte.

One day at a time has certainly worked for Rivera, who has been taking that approach, as a player and coach in the NFL, for more than 25 years.

“It’s been great," he said in his characteristically understated manner.

Follow E.J. Aguado on twitter: @ejaguado

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