Here’s how tightly bunched the NFC playoff picture is: With two games left to play, the Carolina Panthers could be the top overall seed in the NFC or miss the playoffs entirely.
The Panthers (10-4) have scenarios that could mean anything from home-field advantage throughout the playoffs to a No. 2 seed to a wild card to staying at home in January.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he hasn’t thought about playoff scenarios because all his team can control is what they do.
“The only thing I do see is it's about winning and every time we win we get closer to it,” Rivera said. “But again, I'm really trying to stay focused. I don't talk about it openly, that's for sure, because I want to make sure our players are focused in on this upcoming game.”
Sunday’s game between Carolina and New Orleans will clinch a playoff berth for the winner. The Saints would clinch the NFC South with a win, and the Panthers would be in control for the division title with a victory – but still need a win in their final game, at Atlanta, to clinch it.
Rivera did admit it’s a little odd that, with three 10-win teams in the NFC, only 12-2 Seattle has clinched a berth.
“It's crazy but that's part of it,” he said. “There's a lot of parity right now in our league, and I think it makes for an exciting season. Most certainly does give you heartburn, but it's exciting.
“I don't know if the schedule makers could have asked for a better situation as far as we're concerned. It's coming down for a real big weekend.”
Here’s a look at the many ways Carolina could get into the playoffs, and one way the Panthers could be left out.
How the Panthers could get the No. 1 seed: In the realm of possibilities, this is probably the least likely, but it’s still in play. If Carolina wins out, the Panthers will be 12-4. Though Seattle has clinched a playoff berth, it has not clinched its division. If Seattle loses its final two games and San Francisco wins out, the 49ers will take the NFC West by virtue of the division record tiebreaker. At that point, both Carolina and San Francisco would be 12-4, and Carolina owns the head-to-head tiebreaker after its Week 10 win against the 49ers. The only way Carolina gets home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs is if the Panthers win out and San Francisco wins the NFC West.
How the Panthers could get the No. 2 seed: This is the more likely scenario should Carolina win out. If the Panthers beat the Saints and Falcons, they will win the NFC South. If Seattle wins one more game, it will finish with a better record than Carolina. Should the Panthers win the division, they will get a first-round bye and host at least one playoff game.
Why the Panthers could not get the No. 3 or 4 seed: The Panthers can’t win the NFC South without having one of the NFC’s top two records. Since only division champions get top-four seeds, the Panthers can’t be 3 or 4.
How the Panthers could get the No. 5 or 6 seed: This is where the Panthers stand as of now, and they will remain there unless they finish with a better record overall than the Saints. If Carolina splits the final two games, the Panthers are in no matter what happens in the NFC West with the 49ers and Cardinals because of the way tiebreakers are set up. It’s possible the Panthers could lose out and still get into the playoffs, but they would need help.
How the Panthers could miss the playoffs: This is only a consideration if Carolina loses both of its remaining games. In that scenario, a win each by San Francisco and Arizona would keep the Panthers out.
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