With a win Sunday at New Orleans, the Panthers would finish in second place in the NFC South.
It’s not where a team with playoff expectations wanted to end up, but it would mark the Panthers’ best finish since they won the division in 2008, which was their last playoff appearance.
If the Panthers win and Tampa Bay loses to Atlanta, Carolina will finish second because it swept the season series against the Saints.
If the Panthers beat the Saints and Tampa Bay upsets Atlanta, all three teams would finish with 7-9 records. Despite being swept by the Bucs, the Panthers would finish second by virtue of the league’s tie-breaking procedures.
The fourth tiebreaker for ties involving three teams – record against common opponents – would knock the Bucs out. The Panthers then would win the tie with the Saints by virtue of their sweep.
But the Panthers have to beat New Orleans. A loss would drop them to fourth.
“We’ll see how that goes. It would be a great testament to how far we’ve come,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose team started 2-8. “But it’s a heck of a test. This is a good football team.”
Said defensive end Charles Johnson: “A win is a win. If that puts us second, that’s good. But we just want to finish the season strong and try to keep it rolling going into next year.”
A win Sunday would give the Panthers a draft pick in the middle of the first round. A loss would put them in a similar position to the 2012 draft, when they had the ninth selection.
No Pro Bowlers: For the first time since 2007, the Panthers had no player selected to the Pro Bowl. Alternates have not been announced.
Carolina defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson have combined for 21.5 sacks, but former Panther Julius Peppers along with Jason Pierre-Paul and Jared Allen were the NFC choices.
Panthers rookie Luke Kuechly, who leads the league in tackles, was passed over in favor of the San Francisco tandem of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis among inside linebackers.
Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert finished second in the fan balloting to Green Bay’s John Kuhn, but Minnesota’s Jerome Felton, the former Panther who is Adrian Peterson’s lead blocker, earned the nod.
The Panthers sent three players to Hawaii last season – center Ryan Kalil, wideout Steve Smith and quarterback Cam Newton, an alternate who took Eli Manning’s spot when the Giants advanced to the Super Bowl.
Silatolu to IR: The Panthers tied a dubious team record Wednesday when rookie guard Amini Silatolu was placed on injured reserve.
Silatolu, the second-round pick who will need surgery on his dislocated wrist, became the 18th player to go on IR, tying last season’s team mark. The Panthers have not yet made a corresponding roster move.
Injury report: Rivera gave eight starters Wednesday off, extending their Christmas breaks. Among injured players, outside linebacker James Anderson (back) did not practice, while running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle) was limited.
Stewart, who has missed the past four games with a high ankle sprain, said he hoped to play against the Saints.
“I’ve just been rehabbing to get on the field,” said Stewart, who has been sidelined for a total of six games. Rivera said it appeared Stewart still was “pretty hobbled.”