The Carolina Panthers (3-8) won the second of several winnable games that permeate the second-half of their schedule with a 30-22 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles (3-8) on Monday Night Football, but each additional win could derail their chances of a high draft pick and a successful season in 2013 and beyond.
Carolina's 2-1 record in the past three weeks—including consecutive road wins over NFC East opponents—could foretell a strong finish for the Panthers with four of their five remaining games coming against teams with losing records.
The Panthers already defeated their divisional rival New Orleans Saints in Week 2, but there is a rematch scheduled in the Superdome to finish the season.
And remember, Carolina nearly knocked off a one-loss Atlanta Falcons team in Week 4—the only team left on their schedule with a winning record—that could benefit from a late-season defeat before heading into the playoffs.
The Panthers were 2-14 in 2010, and their reward was drafting Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall selection of the 2011 NFL draft.
Last season, Carolina improved to 6-10 on the heels of a late-season surge—they won four of their final six games after starting the season 2-8—and earned the right to select Luke Kuechly with the ninth overall pick in 2012.
Newton won the NFL's offensive Rookie of the Year award last season and Kuechly is a top candidate for defensive rookie honors this season.
Fast forward to Week 13 of the 2012 season and the Panthers are in last place in the NFC South with zero chance of a division title and a very narrow shot at an NFC wild card berth even if they finish the season on a six-game winning streak.
Changes Are Coming
Ron Rivera and his coaching staff are likely on their way out regardless of how the Panthers finish the season, as a new general manager will be coming in to replace fired-GM Marty Hurney.
So with five games left on the Panthers' schedule, should Carolina play for wins or for the highest draft pick possible in next April's draft?
The short answer is that the players and coaches should play each game to win as they have throughout the season.
Players play to win and coaches coach to win. Pride, reputations and careers are on the line.
But the NFL's approach to increasing parity by rewarding losing teams with the highest draft picks could be the Panthers' greatest incentive to lose more games than they win the rest of the way.
Panthers Have Improved
Despite their losing record and Cam Newton's inconsistent play, the Carolina Panthers are a better team this season than they were in 2011.
The Panthers have played well enough to win in at least seven or eight of their first 11 games this season, and their 3-8 record is identical to last season's mark heading into Week 13.
Carolina has led in the fourth quarter in all but four games this season.
A blocked punt by Tampa Bay's Aqib Talib in Week 1 and a bounce pass from Newton to Gary Barnidge against Seattle in Week 5—both in the fourth quarter—ruined Carolina's chance to win a pair of games in which they were slightly outplayed.
Both teams are leading Super Bowl contenders.
The reality is that Carolina has a 3-8 record after beginning the season with playoffs aspirations, and each win pushes them further down the list in the first-round selection order of the 2013 NFL draft.
The Panthers continue to have pressing needs, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, both of which should be addressed in the upcoming draft.
The chance to select Utah's All-American defensive tackle Star Lotulelei or Texas A&M's offensive tackle Luke Joeckel diminishes with each successive Panthers victory over fellow bottom-dwellers Kansas City and Oakland.
Carolina is on the verge of becoming a winning team—likely two or three seasons away from becoming a contender—and each win builds confidence for next season, though only for the players and coaches who are still around.
Win or Lose? Pick Your Strategy
Whomever the Panthers new general manager may be in 2013, the upcoming offseason will likely be Carolina's busiest in recent memory.
Perhaps Carolina will change course and adopt a strategy of building the team with veteran free agents. Jerry Richardson has never been shy about spending money, though he has typically preferred to shell out big contracts to home-grown talent.
No matter what is best for the Panthers in the long run, Rivera, Newton and company will continue playing to win for the rest of the season.
Greg Olsen, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are each enjoying Pro Bowl-worthy seasons they plan to continue for five more games.
Thomas Davis and Steve Smith are winners and among the best leaders in the NFL. Both players are having superb seasons as well.
And we all know how much Cam Newton hates losing.
But as a fan, cheering for a few more Panthers losses this season is not an entirely bad mindset to have, regardless of how painful and difficult it may be to adopt a losing outlook for your favorite NFL team.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on B/R.
Follow me on Twitter @JimmyGrappone.
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