Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers will play each team in the NFC South, and the AFC South's Houston Texans, in their last four games of the season.
The Carolina Panthers (4-8) are heading into the fourth quarter of the season led by record-setting rookie Cam Newton, a resurgent running game, and riding a two-game winning streak as they prepare to face each of their NFC South rivals for a second time.
The Panthers are 1-2 in the division with last week’s victory at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-8), a close loss to the New Orleans Saints (9-3) and a convincing 14-point defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons (7-5).
Carolina’s only non-divisional game remaining is against the Houston Texans (9-3) of the AFC South.
Entering Week 14, the Panthers' remaining opponents have a .604 winning percentage.
Here’s a look ahead at each of the Panthers' final four games of 2011, and what we can expect to see out of the Panthers the rest of the way.
Michael Turner (33) ran for 139 yards against the Panthers in Week 6.
This is a rematch of the Falcons' 31-17 Week 6 victory over the Panthers.
In the first game, played at the Georgia Dome, the Panthers moved the ball at will during the first three quarters and owned a 17-14 advantage early in the fourth.
However, bad bounces and timely mistakes led to Carolina's demise.
A first-half Cam Newton pass intended for a wide-open Steve Smith in the end zone was deflected by the linebacker covering Greg Olsen and landed in the arms of Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes, negating a certain Panthers touchdown.
The Panthers dominated the third quarter with a long touchdown drive before things stalled on consecutive drives due to a couple of penalties and a horrible decision by Newton to throw a screen pass directly into the arms of a Falcons defensive lineman.
Michael Turner finally wore the Panthers' front seven down by the fourth quarter and pounded his way to 139 yards rushing.
The Panthers enter this game riding a two-game winning streak, both coming on the road, and they will have a loud and rabid fanbase ready to cheer them on.
Like Carolina, the Falcons are 2-2 in their past four games following last weekend's 17-10 loss to the AFC South-leading Houston Texans; though, unlike the Panthers, the 7-5 Falcons are fighting for their playoff lives.
Expect the Panthers to continue their recent trend of running the ball often and effectively to set up Newton's downfield passing.
Expect the Falcons to run the ball a lot, too, with human pinball, Turner, in the backfield and with Matt Ryan struggling in games away from Atlanta.
The Panthers are banged up all over the place defensively, including losing their two rookie defensive tackles, Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, for the rest of the season just this week.
The Falcons are without their best cornerback and occasional return man, Brent Grimes, so Steve Smith should get a lot of attention from Newton.
The Panthers are coming home to an excited, and potentially rowdy, fanbase that can't wait to greet their team coming off its first consecutive wins in nearly two years.
The Falcons will likely concede the NFC South crown to the Saints, but at 7-5, they are very much alive for a wild-card position.
The Panthers need this game for their fans and their confidence; the Falcons need this game for a possible berth into the 2012 NFL playoffs.
Against the odds, I am predicting a Panthers win based on a steady diet of Panthers running backs pounding the line of scrimmage and Steve Smith stretching and attacking the Grimes-less secondary.
Panthers 31, Falcons 27
Arian Foster (23) fushed for 111 yards in Week 13 against the Falcons' defense.
This is the Panthers' and Texans' first meeting of 2011.
The AFC South-leading Houston Texans are playing with their third-string quarterback, UNC rookie T.J. Yates, after starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart suffered season-ending injuries in consecutive games.
If the Texans are going to advance in the playoffs, it's got to be behind the strong running legs of Arian Foster and Ben Tate.
Expect the same formula to be employed against the Panthers' 27th-ranked run defense.
The Texans defense is currently ranked third against the pass, fourth against the rush, second overall and second in scoring defense, so the Panthers will likely have a difficult time moving the ball up and down the field.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton might be made to look like a rookie for one of the few times this season and both Olindo Mare (kicker) and Jason Baker (punter) should prepare for busy afternoons.
The Texans are a much better team right now than the up-and-coming Panthers, despite the absence of their top-two quarterbacks and All-Pro defensive end Mario Williams, and the Panthers will have to fly back to Charlotte with another mark in the "L" column.
Panthers 12, Texans 21
Steve Smith (89) catches a pass against the Winking Pirates in the creamsickle uniforms.
The Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Christmas Eve in a rematch of Carolina's 38-19, Week 13 win in Tampa.
The Bucs wore the Creamsicle unis with the winking pirate in their first matchup and they played about as softly as they dressed.
The Panthers defense stuffed Tampa Bay's LeGarrette Blount to the tune of 19 yards on 11 carries and harried quarterback Josh Johnson who was filling in for the injured Josh Freeman.
Carolina ran the ball for 163 yards against the Bucs and Cam Newton scored three touchdowns on the ground, including his record-breaking 13th rushing touchdown by a quarterback, while throwing for another touchdown in the Panthers' most complete performance of the season.
After last year's 10-6 season, the Bucs have regressed tremendously, thanks to shoddy line play and poor decision-making with the football.
Freeman, who should be healthy for the rematch, is not having the season he had in 2010 when he passed for 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He has thrown 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions so far in 2011.
The Panthers will look to run the ball against the Bucs' porous run defense in order to control the clock and to keep their own defense off the field as much as possible.
I wouldn't be surprised to see another trick play from the Panthers' offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, in this one reminiscent of Legedu Naanee's pass to Newton in their first game.
Carolina beat the Bucs on the road by running almost twice as often as they passed and by stuffing the run for the first time all season.
The Panthers will do it again.
Panthers 35, Bucs 20
Jimmy Graham (80) attempting the Vince Carter "Elbow on the Crossbar" dunk.
The New Orleans Saints beat the Carolina Panthers 30-27 in a Week 5 matchup in Charlotte.
The Panthers played well and took the lead, 27-23, on a five-yard pass from Newton to Greg Olsen just a couple of minutes into the fourth quarter, but Saints' quarterback Drew Brees would have the last laugh, driving New Orleans 89-yards in 13 plays to take the lead for good with :50 left in regulation.
Carolina had the ball for one last position and advanced to midfield, but the Panthers were unable to get into field-goal range to force overtime, and the clock expired on the Panthers' hopes to win that Sunday.
This game is nearly impossible to predict because it is completely dependent upon which Saints team is going to take the field.
If New Orleans is locked into a No. 3 or 4 seed, it will likely rest Brees to ensure he's fresh for the playoffs.
However, if there is room for the Saints to improve their overall seed in the NFC playoffs, they will likely play Brees for at least part of the game.
The Panthers will play to win no matter which opponent they face.
After this game, the preparation for 2012 will begin.
The New Orleans Saints are still the best team in the NFC South and a legitimate Super Bowl contender, if only they can get past the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs.
If the Saints have nothing to win or lose entering the game, they will likely sit Brees and the Panthers will have a shot to win the game.
But if the No. 3 playoff seed is on the line, Brees and Co. won't give the Panthers a chance. Not this year, at least.
Panthers 24, Saints 38
Cam Newton celebrates record run.
I predicted at the beginning of the season that the Panthers would finish their first season with Newton and Rivera with a 6-10 record
I am sticking to that prediction, and I am also sticking with my prediction the Panthers will finish 10-6 in 2012.
The Panthers will do well to finish their season's final four games of 2011 with a 2-2 record, and 6-10 overall.
Carolina has improved dramatically since 2010 and the Panthers will continue to get better in the offseason through the 2012 NFL Draft and free agency.
The Panthers have several positions where improvement is vital to their continued growth, and there will be some new faces in town next season.
However, there are four more games to be played before any new moves for 2012 can be made and anything is possible during the final stretch.