A win over the Saints on Monday night would have propelled the Panthers not only into the division lead, but into sole possession of the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed.
But then the Saints served the Panthers a big bowl of not-so-fast and handed Carolina not only its worst beatdown of the season, but a 31-13 shellacking that dropped the Panthers out of the division lead and into the now-vulnerable No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
|Current NFC Playoff Picture|
|No. 1||Seattle Seahawks||11-2|
|No. 2||New Orleans Saints||10-3|
|No. 3||Philadelphia Eagles||8-5|
|No. 4||Detroit Lions||7-6|
|No. 5||Carolina Panthers||9-4|
|No. 6||San Francisco 49ers||9-4|
There are still three games left on the schedule and, mathematically, the Panthers could still climb back into the NFC South lead—and even the top seed in the playoffs. But the Panthers are no longer in control of their destiny in that regard. If Carolina is going to climb higher than the No. 5 seed, someone above them is going to have to fall.
Carolina is, however, in control of its own destiny for a playoff bid. If the Panthers win their remaining three games, they are guaranteed a playoff spot at 12-4. In that scenario, they’d still be the fifth seed if no other team above them lost.
Speaking of scenarios, what are the Panthers’ best- and worst-case scenarios for the playoffs?
Before those can be laid out, let’s look at the remaining schedule for Carolina.
|Carolina Panthers: Remaining Schedule|
|Week 15||New York Jets||6-7|
|Week 16||New Orleans Saints||10-3|
|Week 17||Atlanta Falcons||3-10|
The Panthers still face two teams with losing records in the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons, but must also play the Saints again. While it may seem like a good thing to get another shot at New Orleans, nothing good can come of it, mathematically speaking.
It would be absolutely monumental to beat the Saints on Dec. 22 and pull back into a tie with the boys in black and gold, but that tie would only be window dressing. Tiebreaker scenarios benefit the Saints, meaning that the Panthers would still be relegated to the No. 5 seed.
So, while the Panthers would gain necessary momentum and confidence by handing the Saints a rematch loss, it’d be better to be playing a patsy and get an automatic win because a loss to New Orleans could really hurt.
In a perfect world, the rest of December would only benefit the Panthers and wreak havoc on everyone else.
If the Panthers win all three of their remaining games and both New Orleans and the Seattle Seahawks lose all three of theirs, Carolina would not only win the NFC South, but come away with the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed as well.
In that scenario, Carolina would be 12-4 while Seattle would finish at 11-5 and New Orleans at 10-6. The best-case scenario also would work if New Orleans only loses two of its remaining three games to finish at 11-5, but Carolina would still have to win all three games and Seattle lose all three games left on their schedules.
This scenario is as unlikely as another Home Alone sequel.
After winning eight in a row and playing with as much fire and guts as any team in the NFL, missing the playoffs would be gut-wrenching for the Panthers.
It could happen.
There are four teams in the NFC playoff picture on the outside looking in: the Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. Any of those four could move up into the playoffs if Carolina drops enough games.
The San Francisco 49ers are currently in possession of the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. They could move up if the Panthers stumble.
|Carolina vs. the NFC Bubble|
|Team||Current Projected Seed||Record|
|Carolina Panthers||No. 5||9-4|
|San Francisco 49ers||No. 6||9-4|
|Arizona Cardinals||No. 7||8-5|
|Chicago Bears||No. 8||7-6|
|Dallas Cowboys||No. 9||7-6|
|Green Bay Packers||No. 10||6-6-1|
If Carolina were to lose all three of its remaining games, Arizona would only have to win one to leapfrog the Panthers because Arizona beat Carolina in Week 5. In addition, if San Francisco were to win at least one game, the Panthers would miss out on postseason play altogether with an 0-3 finish.
Carolina’s magic number is two, but that’s only because San Francisco and Arizona still have to play each another.
As soon as the Panthers win two more games they’ll clinch a trip to the playoffs.
Two more wins would also give Carolina a minimum of 11 for the season, although that wouldn’t guarantee anything because San Francisco sits at 9-4 and Arizona at 8-5.
Since Arizona and San Francisco meet in Week 17, only one can mathematically finish ahead of Carolina because of tiebreakers if the Panthers win twice.
If Carolina finishes 11-5 and Arizona wins it final three games, the Cardinals would also finish at 11-5. In this scenario, the 49ers could also finish 11-5 if their only loss was to Arizona. At this point, tricky tiebreaker scenarios come into play.
According to NFL rules, to break a tie between three wild-card teams, the step to whittle away at the deadlock is to eliminate “all but the highest ranked club in each division.” In our scenario, Arizona and San Francisco would have split their meetings so record versus the division is the next factor, which the 49ers would easily win.
That would bounce Arizona from the playoffs and make Carolina the No. 5 seed with San Francisco as the No. 6 seed.
If Carolina finishes 11-5 and the 49ers win all three of their remaining games to finish at 12-4 with Arizona at 10-6, San Francisco would be the No. 5 seed and Carolina the No. 6 seed.
Tiebreakers aside, as long as the Panthers get to 11 wins, they’re in the playoffs.
All quotes obtained firsthand by the writer uinless otherwise noted.