I planned to spend part of the five-hour flight to Los Angeles on Friday writing about SoCal guy Ryan Kalil, one of the more interesting dudes in the Panthers locker room.
Kalil didn’t want to talk to the media this week, though, likely owing to his shoulder injury and/or the stream of L.A.- and Southern Cal-related questions he’d face.
Anyway, I needed a backup plan and my editor suggested exploring the Panthers’ path to the playoffs.
The Panthers had gone five weeks between victories before last week’s win against Arizona and were swept in their first go-round through the NFC South.
(Cue Jim Mora’s “Playoffs?!” screed.)
Naturally, I agreed to do the piece.
Even with more than half the regular-season schedule remaining for Carolina, it’s never too early to start breaking down playoff possibilities. My first year on the beat was the 2010 abomination, when editors were floating NFL draft stories before November.
First, the sobering truth: The Panthers, at 2-5, are only in slightly better shape than they were before dispatching the Cardinals.
As you’ve probably read, 92 teams have started 1-5 since the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams in 1990. Only one made the playoffs: The Kansas City Chiefs rattled off 10 wins in a row last season to get in.
This Panthers team doesn’t look capable of a 10-game winning streak.
Yes, the pass rush finally showed up last week and Leonard Johnson provided a huge spark at nickel. The young guys in the secondary need time before they’re fully formed though – as in two years, not two months.
Matt Ryan and Drew Brees carved up the cornerbacks in embarrassing fashion, and each gets another shot at them, albeit in Charlotte. San Diego’s Philip Rivers also is looming in Week 14 (more on that later).
This is not to paint a hopeless picture.
In 2014, the Panthers back-doored their way into the postseason by winning their final four games to claim an awful division at 7-8-1. While Atlanta has a history of late-season fades, the Falcons (6-3) boast an explosive offense and the look of a contender.
Carolina’s best playoff route appears to be as a wild card.
Before the season started, the most popular Super Bowl picks from the NFC were Carolina, Green Bay, Seattle and Arizona. The Seahawks (4-2-1) are the only one of the four on top of their division.
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been himself for Green Bay (4-3), which is entering an easy stretch of its season – which is to say the Packers will play AFC South teams the next two weeks.
The Panthers drew the AFC South during their Super Bowl season, but weren’t as lucky this year. The AFC West is the only division with three five-win teams, two of which – Kansas City (5-2) and Oakland (6-2) – are on the Panthers’ November schedule.
Also, the last-place Chargers (3-5) are dangerous, having scored more points than every team but the Falcons.
Here’s my roadmap for the Panthers to play in January:
▪ First, get to 5-5.
The Panthers have picked up some offensive momentum with strong showings against New Orleans and Arizona. The defense joined the party last week.
Carolina is a better team than the Rams (3-4). Beat L.A., then take care of Kansas City and the Saints at home to get to .500. That’s a start.
▪ Split the other two West Coast games.
The Panthers will spend the week in northern California after their Nov. 27 game at Oakland before heading to Seattle for a Sunday night showdown with the Seahawks.
Obviously, a sweep would be ideal. The Raiders went 2-0 while staying in Florida a week between games against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay (an easier task, to be sure).
If the Panthers can come home at 6-6, they’ll be in the hunt.
▪ Take care of business in the division, beat an old friend.
The Panthers have to flip their record against their NFC South rivals after going 0-3 in the first meetings.
Carolina’s last four games are at home against San Diego and Atlanta (Christmas Eve), and road games at Washington and Tampa Bay (New Year’s Day). Winning three of those would put the Panthers at 9-7, which might just be enough to sneak in.
Running the table and finishing 10-6 will get them a road game (Seattle again?!) in the wild-card round.
Among those standing in the Panthers’ way will be Washington and cornerback Josh Norman, whose sudden departure in April altered the Panthers’ draft strategy and had a trickle-down effect on the entire defense.
Norman will be just a wee bit excited to face his former teammates during a Monday Night Football matchup. Ditto Cam Newton and Co.
So there it is – a three-part plan for a fourth consecutive playoff berth.
It’s not going to be easy and it might get wild.
And if you start seeing stories about draft targets around Thanksgiving, you’ll know why.