Not over yet: Panthers still in playoff mix in muddled NFC

The odds are long, but Carolina has multiple paths to the postseason

Despite losing running back Christian McCaffrey for the rest of the season and firing offensive coordinator Joe Brady during the bye week, Matt Rhule and the Panthers could still make the playoffs. (Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo)

At a first glance, it would appear the Carolina Panthers are just playing out the string.

Recent developments are more fitting for a second-division team looking to improve draft positioning rather than a contender for the NFC playoff field. The team has shut down star running back Christian McCaffrey for the rest of the season following another injury. Over last week’s bye, the team also dismissed offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who spent less than two seasons in the position. Head coach Matt Rhule was also rumored to be a candidate for the (since filled) Notre Dame job, and there was also speculation he might be on the hot seat.

Despite what the eye test may indicate, the Panthers ship is not sinking — at least not quite yet. In fact, as Week 14 opens, Carolina is just one game out of the final playoff spot.

Part of that is thanks to the NFL’s decision to expand the playoff field by one team, taking seven teams from each conference instead of six. But even under the old system, the Panthers would be just a game out of the money.

Here’s a look at the crowded NFC playoff picture and where the Panthers fit in the mix.

NFC South Division: A division title is all but out of reach for the Panthers. The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a four-game lead with five games to play. The Panthers get the Bucs twice over the final month of the season, which would allow them to make up ground quickly, but with a magic number of two, Tampa appears on the verge of wrapping things up and joining fellow division winners the Cardinals, Packers and Cowboys in the first four postseason spots.

The Wild Card leaders: At 8-4, the Rams have a firm grip on the first Wild Card spot, with a two-game lead over the rest of the field. Los Angeles has a tough remaining schedule, including the Cardinals this week as well as games against the Vikings, 49ers and Ravens. But the Rams are still in the most enviable spot of the Wild Card contenders.

Washington is currently holding the sixth spot at 6-6. Ron Rivera’s crew has a win over the Panthers already this season. The Football Team still has a shot at overtaking the Cowboys with two head-t-head games in the final five weeks. Of course, it also makes Washington vulnerable to falling out of the playoff picture if the Cowboys take care of business. Washington also has two games against the Eagles, which won’t be easy. ESPN’s analytics team gives the Washington Football Team just a 40% chance of making the postseason.

San Francisco holds the final spot at 6-6. The 49ers might have the toughest remaining schedule, with games at Cincinnati, Tennessee and the L.A. Rams remaining. Their two home games are very winnable — against Atlanta and Houston — but, like Washington, the Niners are vulnerable.

The Wild Card challengers: The Panthers are third in line of the teams currently on the outside looking in. Ahead of current 10th-seed Carolina are the Eagles and Vikings.

Philadelphia hasn’t had its bye yet, so the 6-7 Eagles have one more win than a quartet of 5-7 teams. The Eagles have two against Washington and one against Dallas in the final four. Carolina will have to hope for a split between the Eagles and WFT to open the door.

The Vikings are coming off a loss to previously winless Detroit and have Pittsburgh on a short week on Thursday night. Minnesota also has games against the Rams and Packers, as well as two against the lowly Bears. A run to a playoff berth seems unlikely at best.

The Panthers are next in the pecking order. Carolina has games against the two other 5-7 teams in the division — Atlanta and New Orleans — which could allow them to emerge as a contender for a spot. Even if the Panthers win both, however, their remaining three games are a home-and-home against the Bucs and a trip to Buffalo in December. ESPN gives them a 3.5% shot at getting into the field.

To crash the party, Carolina won’t even need to win out. If the Panthers go 4-1 and get an assist from the Cowboys, who can hang losses on the two NFC East contenders, they’d be 9-8. That, combined with a Washington-Philadelphia split, would leave both Philly and Washington at 8-9 at best. If the Vikings lose to the Rams and Packers, they’d also fall to 8-9, as would the Niners if they drop the three road games where they’ll be underdogs.

If any of the other contenders suffer further upset losses, the Panthers may even be able to squeeze in by winning three of the final five and finishing 8-9.

The odds are long, but there’s still a pulse, despite all the bad news coming from the Panthers headquarters this past week.