The win catapulted the Panthers from the fifth seed to the second seed and put them in line to claim the NFC South with a win next week against the Atlanta Falcons. While it would be nice to see Carolina enjoy the perks of being a division winner and top conference team (first-round bye and home playoff game), how awesome would it be for them to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs?
A ridiculous thought for a team that started out 1-3 earlier this season.
However, wrapping up the top playoff spot may not seem so far-fetched for these Carolina Panthers. According to ESPN.com, that scenario can become a reality if the following events take place:
First, San Francisco needs to defeat Atlanta on Monday Night Football and win again next week. Obviously, the Panthers need to win, but they will need additional help from the St. Louis Rams (who will play Seattle) to clinch the first playoff seed.
So, to recap: Carolina wins + two consecutive San Francisco wins + a Seattle loss = top spot for Panthers.
That would create a three-way tie for Carolina, San Francisco and Seattle at 12-4.
As mentioned before, the Panthers will travel to Atlanta to take on the rival Falcons to close out the regular season. The Falcons have been a major disappointment this season, but they would love nothing more than to play spoiler to Carolina's division championship aspirations.
True, the Panthers beat the Falcons convincingly at home earlier in the season. However, the Falcons will want to end their season on a strong note and should give the Panthers all they can handle.
The Carolina offense should be able to move the ball a lot better against the Atlanta defense, but it may be tested if veteran wide receiver and playmaker Steve Smith is unable to go next week.
Smith left the game with a knee sprain and may miss some time. Obviously, having a bye week is crucial for the Panthers if they want him on the field during the postseason.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons should have their hands full with the Carolina defense.
Luke Kuechly is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year and will lead a talented and aggressive unit into the Georgia Dome.
Being backed up by the likes of Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson (20.0 combined sacks) and a resurgent Thomas Davis, Matt Ryan and Co. may find it difficult to move the ball with any kind of effectiveness.
Carolina still controls its destiny when it comes to earning a bye week but will need help on the West Coast.
In recent weeks, the San Francisco 49ers have been playing better since their back-to-back losses to Carolina and New Orleans earlier this year. They will host Atlanta on Monday night and then travel to Arizona to take on a Cardinals team desperately fighting for a playoff spot.
Needless to say, their regular-season finale should be interesting to watch. The Niners will need to win and get help from the Rams as well in order to clinch the NFC West. Indeed, both teams will be playing for more than just a win on Sunday.
The madness doesn't end there.
Moving up north, there is the crucial game between St. Louis and Seattle. The Rams have been playing spoiler as of late (just ask the Saints) and will look to close out their season at .500.
The task at hand will not be a cakewalk, as playing in Seattle is difficult for any team, but as the Cardinals proved this past weekend, it can be done. Seattle cannot afford to slip up and drop its final regular-season home game against St. Louis. The Rams don't have anything to lose and will be playing for respect. That alone makes them a very dangerous team.
It seems unlikely the Seahawks drop such an important game to a lesser team, but on any given Sunday, anything can happen.
It would appear the NFL schedulers got it right this year. By scheduling a lot of late-season divisional matchups, the NFC playoff picture will come down to the final week of the season. From top to bottom, all teams in the hunt have something to play for this week.
Who would have thought that three games could determine the first two playoff seeds?
Steve Smith predicted a rematch with the Seahawks after his team dropped the season opener. Having the top seed would greatly help the Panthers' chances against Seattle if they were to meet at Charlotte instead of the noisy, earth-shaking atmosphere that is CenturyLink Field.
After four underachieving seasons since their last playoff appearance, the fans in Carolina would love nothing more than to see their Panthers play host to the NFC playoffs.
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