A Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl won't be so bad.
The teams put on a great show when they met in Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004: Patriots 32, Panthers 29—a wild back-and-forth fourth quarter, with Tom Brady heroics in the closing seconds.
Cam Newton is a heck of a lot more fun than Jake Delhomme was back then; he is sure to liven up media day, anyway. (The dabbing...oh, the dabbing.) It will be an exciting matchup with lots of compelling storylines.
If we sound a little resigned to Patriots-Panthers, it's because the Panthers and Patriots are within inches of clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after their wins Sunday.
The Patriots' brief losing streak of a few weeks ago has receded into memory. Their top challengers are fielding inexperienced quarterbacks. The Panthers survived a gut-check game against the Giants to remain undefeated. Newton looks downright superhuman right now, and his supporting cast looks more impressive every week.
Football Outsiders calculated the odds of a Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl at 16.1 percent before Week 15. After Sunday's action, the likelihood has probably crept up to about 20 percent. That hardly means a Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl is inevitable. There are other contenders in each conference, and both the Panthers and Patriots have some problems of their own to deal with.
With that in mind, the following five scenarios offer ways that a Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl won't happen.
1. Seahawks-Steelers Slingshot Scenario
What Could Happen: The Seahawks and Steelers reach the postseason as fifth-seeded wild cards with playoff-tested quarterbacks playing lights-out football. The Seahawks beat the winner of the NFC East on the road by a score of 49-3. The Steelers' victory over the AFC South winner is not quite as close.
The Patriots and Panthers must then face red-hot rivals who know what it takes to reach the Super Bowl. The Patriots beat the Steelers in the season opener, and the Panthers defeated the Seahawks in Week 6, but both challengers are much better now than they were at the start of the season.
Why It Might Happen: Wins over the Bengals and Broncos have established the Steelers as the true top challengers in the AFC. Their comeback from a 27-10 deficit for a 34-27 win against the Broncos shows just how resourceful and resilient the Steelers can be, mixing defensive stops with Ben Roethlisberger heroics and a receiving corps too deep for most opponents to handle.
The Seahawks beat the Browns 30-13 and look better now than they did when they won the NFC the last two years.
Why It Probably Won't Happen: Actually, there is a good chance at least one of these teams will give the Patriots or Panthers all they can handle in a playoff game. But the Steelers needed some fluky plays (like giving up a punt-return touchdown but then seeing it called back because Broncos players wandered from the sideline onto the field) to come back against Denver on Sunday.
They are good, but their late-season surge is built on the backs of lots of bad teams and backup quarterbacks. Beating Tom Brady in Foxborough will be a little tougher than outlasting AJ McCarron and Brock Osweiler.
The Seahawks have two grueling games remaining against the Rams (who love taking division rivals down with them) and the Cardinals. They will have been through a meat grinder by the time they face the much-better rested Panthers.
2. Panthers' Composure-Conundrum Scenario
What Could Happen: In the postseason, the Panthers play the way they played in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 38-35 win over the Giants. Fumbles, blocked kicks, blown assignments and a general lack of composure snowball on them.
Newton led a textbook field-goal drive in the final minute to halt the Giants' comeback from a 35-7 deficit Sunday, but the Panthers have a mini-meltdown in a playoff game without such a big cushion on the scoreboard or in coverage against their receivers.
Why It Might Happen: The Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Josh Norman action was so violent Sunday that it looked like a trailer for the Suicide Squad movie. Norman dominated the first half of the game but appeared to let Beckham get under his skin in the fourth quarter. The Panthers are an emotional team, and by the fourth quarter they looked like they were getting swept up by the crowd noise, intensity, chippiness and general chaos.
Why It Probably Won't Happen: Sunday's game provides Ron Rivera with a great opportunity to talk to his players about retaliatory penalties, staying focused while blocking for field goals and all the little things that can get a great team into trouble during a momentum swing. The Panthers should also clinch home-field advantage next week, giving them a few weeks to calm the heck down, unless the chance to finish undefeated leads to further unbound emotion.
3. Rearview-Mirror Scenario
What Could Happen: Objects in the rearview mirror are closer to the Patriots and Panthers than they appear. The Bengals and/or Cardinals, who have each clinched playoff berths, pounce on the top contenders when they get their chances in the playoffs.
Why It Might Happen: The Cardinals are at least the the NFL's third-best team, as they showed in their 40-17 win over the Eagles. They are explosive and deep in playmakers (third-string running back David Johnson rushed for 187 yards and three touchdowns) on offense and opportunistic and unpredictable on defense.
Newton had a great game against the Giants, but he also benefited from several dropped would-be interceptions. Cardinals defenders don't drop many interceptions. Cardinals receivers also don't drop too many touchdowns, and Josh Norman cannot cover John Brown, Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald simultaneously.
The Bengals overcame Andy Dalton's absence for a convincing 24-14 win over the 49ers. Their defense played exceptionally, generating four turnovers and holding the 49ers scoreless until the score was 24-0. For a franchise that is supposed to collapse in December, the Bengals are not quite collapsing. (Also, the Bengals are 14-7 in December since 2011, so the "collapse" storyline is silly, but whatever.)
Why It Probably Won't Happen: Two words: hand injuries.
Carson Palmer suffered a hand injury in the Eagles game. He returned to the game with his fingers taped up, but the Cardinals did not need him to throw much after the injury.
If Palmer's deep accuracy is not as pinpoint, the Cardinals are not nearly as dangerous. Also, the Cardinals face a vicious Packers-Seahawks stretch to end the season, and they need to beat the Packers to sew up a first-round bye.
The Bengals offense was deceptively unimpressive with Dalton out with his thumb injury. Their three touchdown drives covered 11, 20 and 36 yards after long punt returns or turnovers. Two of their three interceptions were tipped passes by 49ers receivers.
AJ McCarron (15-of-21, 192 yards, one touchdown, four sacks) did not look ready to handle the Broncos defense. If McCarron cannot handle the Broncos, the Bengals could lose a first-round playoff bye or even the AFC North.
4. Patriots' Injury Event-Horizon Scenario
What Could Happen: The Patriots' injury situation finally reaches super-critical after weeks at near-meltdown levels.
Danny Amendola (knee), Patrick Chung (hip) and Dont'a Hightower (knee) each sustained injuries in Sunday's 33-16 win over the Titans. The combination of offensive and defensive injuries cause a systemic collapse against a healthier playoff team.
Why It Might Happen: Two weeks of feasting against Conference USA competition has concealed the fact that injuries pulled the Patriots back toward the AFC pack for a solid month from the close Giants and Bills games through the Broncos and Eagles losses.
The cupboard of playoff-caliber backups is getting a little bare. Keshawn Martin caught just three passes for 26 yards in relief of Amendola on Sunday. Rookie Jordan Richards will probably be pressed into starting duty in place of Chung in a thin secondary.
Why It Probably Won't Happen: Tom Brady is healthy. Rob Gronkowski is healthy. Julian Edelman may return for the playoffs.
The backups aren't all that bad: Martin returned a kickoff 75 yards, Richards nearly intercepted two passes as a nickel defender and running back Joey Iosefa came off the practice squad for 51 tough yards and a pretty good LeGarrette Blount impersonation when breaking tackles.
5. Early-Season Contender Scenario
What Could Happen: The Broncos and Packers, who started the season as (respectively) the top challengers to the Patriots and the NFC favorites, reassert themselves in the playoffs. The Broncos already notched a win over the Patriots, of course, and the Packers came up just short in a comeback bid against the Panthers in Week 9.
Why It Might Happen: The Packers defense played well in the first and fourth quarters of their 30-20 win over the troublesome Raiders on Sunday.
Micah Hyde set up a Packers touchdown with an early interception return. Damarious Randall added a pick-six. Julius Peppers added 2.5 sacks to help close out the game. In between, Aaron Rodgers manufactured just enough offense to remind opponents why they do not want to cope with him in the playoffs.
Despite their loss to the Steelers, the Broncos still have one of the NFL's best defenses. Brock Osweiler threw three first-half touchdowns. The Broncos can score from anywhere on the field, whether they have the ball or you do.
Why It Probably Won't Happen: Neither the Packers nor Broncos are all that good. Seriously.
Rodgers has few reliable weapons and no vertical threat whatsoever. The Raiders moved the ball well in the second and third quarters and could easily have won if not for their early-game mistakes.
The Broncos go on insane penalty jags—they committed 12 for 127 yards Sunday—and suffer massive offensive power outages the moment their running game stalls, which happened after halftime against the Steelers.
Heck, the Packers and Broncos could still end up as wild-card teams. The Broncos haven't even clinched a playoff berth.
Last-Minute Gift Ideas
Don't know what to get the team that has nearly everything? Don't worry! Hangover has gifts that the NFL's second-tier contenders can really use.
Green Bay Packers: Season One of The Flash
Remember when some combination of Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb and other Packers playmakers forced opponents to defend about 2,500 square yards of turf practically from the moment the football was snapped?
Now the Packers rely on Cobb, 31-year-old James Jones, two lumbering running backs and a bunch of receivers and tight ends who somehow manage to be both inexperienced and surprisingly slow-footed.
The Packers beat the Raiders, thanks to some points off early turnovers and lots of late-game fourth-down stops. But the Packers produced only three offensive plays longer than 20 yards—none longer than 30 yards.
They have little chance of keeping up with the NFC's big-play offenses in the playoffs if they don't pick up the tempo. Maybe a binge-watch of the most delightful superhero show on television will remind them of the need for speed.
Minnesota Vikings: Framed Copy of the 'Adrian Peterson Serenity Prayer'
The "Adrian Peterson Serenity Prayer" reads: "Lord, give me the serenity to design a game plan that does not focus completely on Peterson, the courage to stick to my guns when Peterson complains and the wisdom to know how much Peterson is just enough Peterson."
Mike Zimmer and coordinator Norv Turner each need a copy to hang in their offices.
Peterson missed part of the Vikings-Bears game after spraining an ankle before halftime. As a result, the Vikings relied more on Teddy Bridgewater's passing and contributions from other running backs.
Bridgewater threw four touchdown passes and rushed for a fifth, Jerick McKinnon (76 receiving yards and a touchdown) and Matt Asiata (34 total yards) were effective in stints off the bench that lasted longer than a play or two, and the Vikings rolled to a 38-17 victory.
Even Mike Wallace snagged a 34-yard pass over the middle in traffic from Bridgewater just moments after Peterson left the game. There are roughly five things about the last sentence that sound completely unlikely, based on the individuals involved and the Vikings offense of the last three months.
Peterson has walked the fine line between "support" and "crutch" for the Vikings offense all season. The ankle injury shouldn't force him to miss any games, per ESPN's Ben Goessling, but scaling Peterson back to 15 touches or so may be the best thing that happens to the Vikings in the final weeks.
Houston Texans: Wall-Mounted Quarterback and Running Back Organizer
The Texans are leading the AFC South with a fourth-string quarterback under center and the NFL's most inscrutable running back rotation. Bill O'Brien needs cubby holes and labels to figure out who goes where.
Brandon Weeden replaced injured T.J. Yates and did something he could not do for the Cowboys earlier this season: win a game.
Actually, Weeden fumbled the ball in great field position late in the game, but offensive lineman Derek Newton pounced on the loose football to save the day. Weeden then led a three-yard field-goal drive. His one touchdown drive consisted of 27 yards of defensive penalties, one 28-yard DeAndre Hopkins catch, a 4th-and-1 conversion and, finally, a nifty little touchdown pass to Jaelen Strong.
So Weeden did roughly the same bare-minimum things he did for the Cowboys. They just had a different result.
As for the running backs, Chris Polk started the game but carried the ball just four times. Akeem Hunt rushed 21 yards on 4th-and-1 early in the game but carried the ball just four more times. Alfred Blue fumbled late in the first quarter but ended the game with 20 carries for 107 yards. Jonathan Grimes, typically a big part of the offense, had just one carry.
You get the impression O'Brien just grabs whichever back is closest to him and throws him on the field. The quarterback crisis would look a lot less dire if the running back situation since Arian Foster's injury made any sense.
No, there is no chance the NFL will replace the AFC South champion in the playoffs with the third-place finisher in the Steelers-Jets-Chiefs race, no matter how much we beg it to.
Washington Redskins: Build-It-Yourself Backup Tight End Kit
The Redskins have come together nicely in the last few weeks. Granted, the Bills looked as motivated as the late-night fry cook in the Redskins' not-that-close 35-25 win. But the Redskins controlled both lines of scrimmage, with Kirk Cousins throwing four touchdown passes, with two of them to Jordan Reed.
Reed briefly left the game with a minor injury, which could have caused a major crisis in Washington. Alex "The Other Alex Smith" Smith was the only other tight end in uniform Sunday. Smith just joined the team this week.
Je'Ron Hamm, really a converted receiver, is the only other tight end on the active roster, though he was deactivated Sunday. Extra offensive lineman Tom Compton was on the field a lot as a de facto tight end in the fourth quarter. The Redskins were (and remain) one injury away from needing Compton as a second tight end in non-obvious rushing situations.
The Redskins look ready to win the NFC East and maybe make a game of it in the first round of the playoffs. They would look a lot readier if they had reinforcements at a position so important to their offense.
Maybe Jay Gruden and line coach Bill Callahan (a big fan of multi-tight end sets) can build a tight end from scratch. It's better than the one alternative no one wants to contemplate: actually humoring Chris Cooley's comeback attempt.
Indianapolis Colts: Engraved Matt Hasselbeck Retirement-Party Invitations
According to CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora, Andrew Luck is expected back next week, and it's not a moment too soon. Not only are the Colts at risk of missing the playoffs after their loss to the Texans, but Hasselbeck has spent two weeks getting pummeled like a slab of beef in a Rocky movie.
Hasselbeck once again left the game Sunday, this time after a nasty shot from Whitney Mercilus. He once again returned, as he did two weeks ago against the Jaguars, but looked pathetically rickety. Even before the Mercilus hit, Hasselbeck threw a lot of wobbly passes toward empty patches of turf.
Hasselbeck has suffered enough for the sins of Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson. If Luck does not return or is knocked out again, Charlie Whitehurst should take over. Slim playoff hopes aren't worth sending an increasingly brittle 40-year-old back onto the field to get himself killed.
Kansas City Chiefs: Three Mirrors, One Smoke Machine
The Chiefs won a 34-14 game over the Ravens in a way only the Chiefs can. They combined two defensive touchdowns, one touchdown after a 24-yard drive and one 53-yard field goal into an illusion of having a quality offense. It helped that they were facing a third-string quarterback and their fifth straight sub-.500 team.
These Chiefs look a lot like the 2013 Chiefs. That team started 9-0 but found the hot streak—built from many bad opponents fielding backup quarterbacks—unsustainable. Those Chiefs lost one of the wildest playoff games in history to the Colts after one too many players got injured during the game.
The Chiefs have already suffered injuries similar to the ones that doomed them in that playoff game. Maybe that's a sign this team is better than that one. They will still need all the tricks they can muster to beat a top-shelf AFC team in the postseason.
Atlanta Falcons: A Transfer to the AFC South
They would rule like kings there.
Offensive Line Bonus
The Chargers have not had much to cheer about for months. Let's give their injury-plagued, justifiably maligned offensive line a bonus for helping Donald Brown lead a three-headed backfield to 141 rushing yards while Philip Rivers endured just one sack in a 30-14 win over the Dolphins. These are the Dolphins who employ Ndamukong Suh and are supposed to be super-motivated because blah-blah-blah Dan Campbell tough-guy cliches blah-blah-blah.
The Chargers line, left to right: Chris Hairston, Orlando Franklin, Trevor Robinson, D.J. Fluker and Joe Barksdale.
Dave Fipp Special Teams Bonus
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie nearly turned the Giants-Panthers game around by flying in from the edge and blocking a fourth-quarter Graham Gano kick about 25 yards backward.
Unsung Defensive Hero Bonus
Hangover went crowdsourcing for this award and got some good input:
Yes, Geno Atkins had a great game, but he is an All-Pro having an All-Pro season. Let's look elsewhere...
That's more like it. Yes, Charles Tillman also has an All-Pro pedigree, but his years of superstardom are behind him, and as Ryan suggests, his contributions were overshadowed by the MMA fight between Beckham and Norman.
Tillman forced a Rashad Jennings fumble near midfield early in the game, when the Giants were playing well on both sides of the football. The turnover led to a quick touchdown that helped the Panthers seize control of the game for the whole second quarter. Tillman's end-zone interception was one huge play in a fourth quarter when every other play was a big play.
So let's give this bonus to Peanut, who provides a dose of Super Bowl experience for the Panthers secondary.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Bonus
Ryan Tannehill rushed for a one-yard touchdown with 1:35 left to play to cut the Chargers' lead over the Dolphins to 30-14 after the extra point.
This doesn't fit anywhere else, but I had the following conversation with my regular bartender this weekend:
BARTENDER: I think I will start Danny Woodhead in my fantasy playoffs Sunday. What do you think, Mr. Expert?
ME: That sounds like a terrible idea. The Chargers only score about a touchdown per month these days, their offensive line is awful and their coach may be asking you for a job after New Year's.
BARTENDER: Yes, but it's a PPR league.
ME: Oh, that's different. Woodhead will catch seven or eight nine-yard passes on 3rd-and-10. You will rack up plenty of nonsense fantasy points.
BARTENDER: That settles it. Woodhead it is!
Woodhead scored four touchdowns. Phew! I was one snarky remark away from being cut off for eternity.
Fantasy Leech Bonus
All together now: Kuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhn.
John Kuhn is a charter member of the "Fantasy Leech Hall of Fame," and he strutted his stuff once more Sunday, running in a five-yard touchdown and causing nationwide grumbles from fantasy gamers counting on Eddie Lacy or James Starks to provide a little production.
Kuhn leeched the first touchdown of his lovably parasitic career in the fourth quarter of a Packers 27-17 win over the Seahawks on Oct. 12, 2008. Yes, Kuhn has been dashing your fantasy hopes since the George W. Bush administration.
Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Ryan Grant, Donald Lee and the young Jordy Nelson were on the field that day. The first four of those guys were probably in fantasy lineups (Lee was a big-deal fantasy tight end for a few years).
But Kuhn caught a one-yard pass from Rodgers, then a first-year starter and A LEECH WAS BORN.
If you had heard in June that Christine Michael would rush for 84 yards in a 30-13 Seahawks win over the Browns in December, you would have thought nothing of it. Ah, you would say to the time traveler who supplied you with fantasy information instead of stock tips, Marshawn Lynch must have gotten hurt, with his highly touted replacement finally stepping up when the Seahawks needed him. Bully for Michael.
Little would you suspect that Michael would only have his semi-big game after returning to the Seahawks on the heels of brief stints with the Cowboys' and the Redskins' practice squad—a onetime running back of the future reduced to a punchline during his travels along the waiver wire.
Seahawks general manager John Schneider deserves credit for bringing Michael back, and both Pete Carroll and coordinator Darrell Bevell deserve credit for getting Michael into the game early and trusting him as a featured back.
Michael knows the Seahawks offense and has better timing with Russell Wilson and his blockers than any other emergency fill-in would have. Instead of keeping Michael in some kind of probationary role, they got him involved and finally got some return on their second-round draft investment from 2013.
Mystery Touch Bonus
Fake punts are all about the element of surprise. You have to call them when your opponent least suspects them. Like, on 4th-and-9 from your own 17-yard line. Only a crazy person would call a fake punt in that situation.
John Harbaugh called a fake punt in that situation. Sam Koch ran up the middle for seven yards. The Chiefs got the ball on their own 24-yard line and scored a quick touchdown to take a 21-7 lead.
Don't be too hard on Harbaugh. Koch had four carries for 26 yards and a touchdown during his 10-year career entering Sunday: He knows how to handle himself during a fake kick.
And the Ravens offense is so terrible that the only play it could execute Sunday was a Hail Mary, and the only way they executed a Hail Mary was by Jimmy Clausen underthrowing the end zone and connecting with Kamar Aiken—the guy trailing the play in search of an offensive rebound.
Let's wrap this week with five more scenarios that could derail an inevitable Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl.
Unseasonably Warm-Weather Scenario
With temperatures along the I-95 corridor expected to hover in the 60s during the final week of December, the Patriots lose their familiar cold-weather playoff advantage.
Thunderstorms confuse the Patriots into thinking it is late summer: time not to turn into a giant robot and crush everything in their wake but to embark on one of their early-season mini-slumps.
This is the Kansas City Chiefs' dream scenario.
The Jets and Redskins reach the playoffs through the sheer cosmic power of Ryan Fitzpatrick's and Kirk Cousins' status as smart, gritty lunch-pail types who "just win."
Geno Smith and Robert Griffin III are sacrificed to a volcano god at halftime to guarantee bountiful harvests and a thrumming stock market. "Eh, it's better than Coldplay," a jaded nation decides.
Pagano-Kelly Job-Fair Scenario
Chuck Pagano and Chip Kelly go on mad late-season runs when faced with possible professional extinction, dragging with them teams that don't appear all that motivated by the prospect of saving their coaches' jobs but feel kind of guilty about underachieving for three months.
The Colts settle all of their old real and imagined grudges against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, while Kelly punishes the Panthers for stealing all of his genius empire-builder with option offense accolades.
Inexplicably, both coaches are still fired, even the one who wins the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Jeff Fisher signs an 11-year contract with the Los Angeles Rams.
Traditional playoffs are replaced by a Facebook poll of brothers-in-law and ex-college buddies who somehow have time to post 60 memes or angry political screeds per day. The poll determines that Tom Brady is a cheater, and Cam Newton is a baby who dances too much.
The poll results in a two-game, one-on-one "playoff" to determine the NFL champion between the only four players in the NFL universally respected on social networks: Darren Sproles, NaVorro Bowman, Eric Berry and Pat McAfee.
Odell Beckham Jr. Single-Handed Scenario
First, Beckham scores six touchdowns against the Vikings and Eagles to squeak the Giants into the playoffs. Then, he shows Richard Sherman who the real superstar is. Then, he discount double-checks and Lambeau leaps all over the Packers.
In the NFC Championship Game, he catches four touchdown passes and then celebrates by dabbing in Newton's face and hitting Josh Norman in the head with a shovel.
Finally, Beckham plays offense, defense and special teams against the Patriots, scores three touchdowns, intercepts Brady twice, returns a punt for a touchdown and blocks a field goal in the Super Bowl.
The previous scenario was retrieved directly from Beckham's subconscious while he slept.
Merry Christmas from the Hangover team! Peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.