Did Rivera really doubt his team's ability to convert after they "failed" to convert on third down? That seems impossibly short-sighted, especially considering Newton actually made it past the sticks before having the ball knocked out of his hands. Since Newton arrived in town, the Panthers have faced third- or fourth-and-1 on 24 occasions. They've converted on 21 of those 24 opportunities.
Given his team's particular mix of strengths and weaknesses, and the extremely high stakes of the situation, Rivera's decision to punt is a strong candidate for worst coaching decision of the year. ESPN Stats and Info's win expectancy model estimates that it dropped Carolina's chances of winning from 83.5 percent to 57.4 percent without adjusting for the specific skills of the two teams; chances are that Rivera dropped his team's "true" chances of winning by 35-40 percent by punting.
That 21-of-24 stat makes the call look even worse. At least the lunacy of it all is getting national attention.