Ron Rivera, whose 7-8-1 Panthers won the NFC South title last year and made the playoffs, said whichever team finishes first in the NFC East this year should wear the crown proudly.

“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” Rivera said.

This year’s 13-0 Panthers have nothing to apologize for either. But with three teams tied for first at 6-7 in the NFC East, there has been plenty of snickering about the division and even some speculation that the NFL should change the way it selects its playoff teams.

“This is about winning your division,” Rivera said. “This just happened to be a down year for the NFC East, but a team gets hot and gets on a roll like we did last year, you can make some noise in the playoffs, which we did. I was on an 8-8 team that went into the playoffs [the 2008 Chargers, as the defensive coordinator] and nobody gave us a chance and we ended up winning in the first round. As far as I’m concerned, this is a part of the game, this is the way that the game is. People want to talk about, well, you have to change it. No. Why? To satisfy other people? This is the way it is, and it needs to stay this way.”

Only two teams with losing records have made the playoffs: the 2010 Seahawks (7-9) and last year’s Panthers. Each won a postseason game.

With three teams vying for the NFC East title and facing each other down the stretch, it seems improbable that the division winner will finish with a losing record. Eight-and-eight, though, could happen.

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“Hey, if the Giants make it, good for them, because remember a couple years ago, they were 9-7, they weren’t one of the best six records, but yet they won the Super Bowl,” Rivera said. “So again, there’s no reason to apologize. They got in because they got hot, they won their division, gave themselves a chance, and next thing you know, they win the Super Bowl. Tom Coughlin, the New York Giants, they’ve got nothing to apologize for if they put themselves in the playoffs.

“I’m passionate about it because I’ve been in this league almost 30 years, and every time I turn around, somebody wants to change something,” Rivera continued. “This league has been going pretty well and things have been pretty good, and now all of a sudden, people think it’s not good enough. The league is fine. We just have to make sure we take care of the people that are in the league, make sure that we do things the right way, and we behave ourselves.

“This is something that obviously I’m passionate about, and the NFC East, and the AFC South, hey, that’s just football. It’s the cycle. A year from now, somebody else might be down that was a 12-4 team that got into the playoffs, and they may go 8-8 and win the division, but guess what? That’s the fortunes of being in a division. That’s just the way it is.”