Panthers stretch run will determine division, playoff hopes

Costly loss to New Orleans leaves Carolina playing catch-up in NFC South

After losing to New Orleans on Sunday, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers have an uphill climb to catch the Saints in the NFC South. (Chuck Cook / USA TODAY Sports)

The Carolina Panthers’ playoff picture got gloomier last Sunday.

Carolina lost at New Orleans, 31-21, in a battle for first place in the NFC South Division. The loss gave the Saints a one-game lead with four to play, as well as the tiebreaker edge, after sweeping the Panthers in both games this year.

If the season ended now, Carolina would make the playoffs as the sixth and final seed in the NFC. At the moment, that means a trip to Los Angeles to play the 9-3 Rams.

The Panthers don’t control their own destiny, and, because of the tiebreaker situation, actually need to make up two games on the Saints in order to win the division.

It’s a tall task, but not impossible. The players certainly aren’t conceding the division.

“One thing we do here is we don’t give up,” said defensive lineman Kawann Short.

“We’re still in the hunt, man,” agreed receiver Russell Shepard. “We still have the opportunity to make a huge run. It’s a long season. (The schedule) plays to our advantage.”

The Panthers have three home games in the last four, while the Saints go on the road twice to play divisional foes.

“Playing on grass, at home, I think that’s going to help us,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s going to help the guys that are banged up.”

This week will be a critical one for Carolina. The Saints have a short turnaround — they play at Atlanta on Thursday night after Sunday’s emotional game against the Panthers. The Falcons are a game behind the Panthers, at 7-5 and looking to defend their NFC Conference title.

Should the Saints fall, the Panthers would have their work cut out to them, with a home game against 10-2 Minnesota. Should Carolina knock off the top seed in the NFC, that, coupled with a Saints loss, would give the Panthers three weeks to make up one game — a very manageable task.

If both the Saints and Panthers lose, however, things get very complicated. Suddenly, the Falcons and Panthers would be tied for the final wild-card spot, making the New Year’s Eve game between the two in Atlanta a potential playoff elimination game.

The Saints play Atlanta twice, giving the Falcons plenty of opportunities to move up in the division. New Orleans’ other two games are at 4-8 Tampa Bay and home against the 5-7 Jets.

Clearly, with two of their top rivals facing off in half the remaining games, the Panthers need to keep posting W’s. In addition to the Falcons and Vikings, the Panthers host the 4-8 Bucs and 6-6 Packers, who may have Aaron Rodgers back by then.

“I think what’s important and significant about the next four games is that we’ve got to take them one at a time,” Rivera said. “Play to the best of our ability and give ourselves opportunities to win. It doesn’t matter what happens anywhere else, other than what we do in the games we play.”

Despite the costly loss in New Orleans. The stretch run begins now.

“We just have to catch fire in a good way,” said Cam Newton. “And I believe that we will.”