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Clearing up the Carolina Panthers' NFC playoff picture

Before his team’s Sunday night game in New Orleans, Panthers coach Ron Rivera checked out some of the early games on TV.

While the snow fell in Philadelphia during the Eagles-Lions game, Rivera watched as the field – and the NFC playoff picture – became a lot messier.

The Panthers’ loss to the Saints later that day brought the rest of the playoff-chasing pack that much closer to Carolina (9-4), which is seeking its first postseason berth in five years.

“It is bunching up in the NFC,” Rivera said this week. “And a lot of those teams will play each other in the last two or three weeks. The schedulers did a great job.”

The Panthers play at home the next two weeks against the New York Jets (6-7) and the NFC South-leading Saints (10-3), who will win the tiebreaker with Carolina if both teams finish 12-4.

The Panthers close the regular season at Atlanta (3-10) on Dec. 29.

Panthers’ playoff breakdown

Winning two out of the final three should virtually assure the Panthers a wild-card spot. The victory against San Francisco turned out to be huge on several levels.

In case of a three-way tie for the wild card – with San Francisco, Arizona and Carolina all finishing 11-5 – the Panthers would win the three-way tiebreaker and get the No.5 seed, San Francisco would be No.6 and Arizona would be out (In that case, 49ers and Arizona would first use the two-team divisional tiebreaker, eliminating Cards due to 49ers’ better NFC West record, and then Carolina would be seeded higher than the 49ers due to head-to-head victory).

Note: Carolina could actually clinch a playoff spot this week, but that would require ALL of these things to happen:

1) Carolina wins, and Arizona, San Francisco and Dallas all lose;

2) OR Carolina wins and Arizona, San Francisco and Philadelphia all lose (in only the Eagles’ case, a tie would also work).

As for winning the NFC South, for that to happen Carolina would have to go 3-0 and New Orleans 1-2 in the final three games (New Orleans wins the tiebreaker if the teams both finish 12-4). So the Saints need only to win two of three games for a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game.

Most likely, the Panthers will not host a home playoff game now. If they are the No.5 seed, they could host the NFC championship, but only if the No.6 seed also advances.

If Carolina goes 1-2 in its final three games, the Panthers would finish 10-6 and stand a chance at being caught by a variety of teams – and that’s when it gets dicey. A 10-6 Chicago team did not make the playoffs in 2012. And an 0-3 ending would likely doom the Panthers’ playoff chances, although I don’t see that happening.

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