The Panthers did not make the postseason in Ron Rivera's first year, but they will have a say in what the NFC playoffs look like.
The Panthers will close their season Sunday at New Orleans, where the Saints will be playing for either the NFC South title and/or a first-round bye.
New Orleans could clinch the division with a win against Atlanta in Monday night's late game.
Rivera, whose team has won four of its past five games, is glad the Saints will have something to play for.
"You want their best shot, because you want to give your best shot and you want to take their best shot. And for us it's the measuring stick," Rivera said Monday. "This team is one of those teams that you do want to measure yourself against because of who they are, the quality of players they are, how well they're coached, going into their environment.
"There's going to be a lot at stake for them as well. So we can most certainly still have an impact on the playoffs."
The Panthers (6-9) have not made the playoffs since 2008 and have not won a postseason game since 2005, when they won two road games before falling to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
With a new coaching staff and a rookie quarterback, the Panthers were not expected to contend for a playoff berth this season.
But with Cam Newton's rapid development and a top-five offense, the Panthers have been competitive nearly every week. The have led in 14 of 15 games, but are 1-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. One of those losses was 30-27 to New Orleans in Week 5.
Given his team's injuries and a truncated training schedule because of the lockout, Rivera said he can't help but wonder might have been.
"You look back and say - not to make any excuses - but if we'd had a little more time. If we'd had (organized team activities) or minicamps, who knows what could've happened from the very beginning?" Rivera said. "We saw glimpses early on of some of the success we had as an offense, as a defense. But we really hadn't put it together until these last few (games)."
While the offense has been fairly consistent all season, the defense has improved in recent weeks despite a spate of injuries. Of the team-record 17 players on injured reserve, nine are defensive players - including five starters (linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn).
Though the interior of the defensive line lacks name recognition, the Panthers have been better against the run.
After allowing an average of 140.7 rushing yards the first 10 games, they have given up an average of 95.6 yards on the ground the past five games to improve to 21st in run defense.
Lately, the secondary has been ailing. The Panthers whipped Tampa Bay 48-16 last weekend without three of their top defensive backs.
"Everyone we've plugged in, you turn the tape on and these guys are playing hard," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "There's a certain pride and a certain expectation level that's been developed over the last month and a half, two months. And that's what we want.
"That's what our hope was to establish. We've got a long way to go. But you kind of smile looking at the tape, knowing regardless of who's in there, they play hard."
Rookie safety Jonathan Nelson had seven tackles and an interception against the Buccaneers a day after being signed off the practice squad. Defensive tackle Jason Shirley, another practice squad product, has had a sack in the only three games he's played.
Rivera hopes to get safeties Charles Godfrey (shoulder) and Jordan Pugh (post-concussion symptoms) back this week after both missed the Bucs' game. The Panthers will be without No. 2 receiver Legedu Naanee at New Orleans after he broke his foot against Tampa Bay.
Rivera said it's unlikely the Panthers would fill Naanee's roster spot in Week 17, and was not sure whether Kealoha Pilares or Armanti Edwards would move into rotation in the three-receiver sets.
Brandon LaFell, who had a team-record, 91-yard touchdown catch against the Bucs, will take Naanee's spot in the starting lineup.
Regardless of who's in the game, Rivera said the Saints will get the Panthers' best effort.
"New Orleans is going to have to win" for playoff positioning, Rivera said. "So they're going to have to play, and play hard. And we're going to show up and play as hard as we can, too. We want to win that game."