The Panthers wrapped up their fourth playoff berth in five seasons last weekend.
But that’s about the only thing that’s settled as far as their postseason plans.
The Panthers (11-4) are guaranteed no worse than the No. 5 seed in the NFC, and could finish as high as No. 2 – though they would need a lot of help to do so.
Rather than flex a game to primetime, the NFL lumped nearly every game of consequence in the NFC at 4:25 p.m. Sunday, including the Panthers’ regular-season finale at Atlanta and the Saints-Buccaneers game at Tampa Bay.
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The Saints’ game has the biggest impact on the Panthers. If New Orleans (11-4) wins, Carolina is locked in as the No. 5 seed and will be on the road as a wild card.
If the Saints lose, the Panthers can capture the NFC South by beating Atlanta (9-6), which faces a win-and-get-in scenario Sunday.
While someone on staff will track the Saints’ score, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it won’t affect how he approaches things in the Falcons’ new stadium.
“I want to win the football game,” Rivera said Tuesday. “I want to keep as much momentum going forward as possible.”
Here’s a primer on the playoff situation in Week 17 for the Panthers:
The Panthers still have an outside shot to grab the No. 2 seed, which would mean a first-round bye and at least one home game.
Here’s what has to happen: Carolina beats Atlanta and hopes New Orleans (at Tampa Bay), Minnesota (vs. Chicago) and the L.A. Rams (vs. San Francisco) all lose.
However, the Falcons, Saints, Vikings and Rams are all favored. New Orleans is an 8.5-point favorite on the road against the 4-11 Bucs.
The Panthers’ worst-case scenario is also -- unfortunately for Rivera and Co. -- the most likely: New Orleans wins and the Panthers are back at the Superdome for the wild-card round after getting swept by the Saints during the regular season.
If the Panthers are going to be a wild card, heading to Los Angeles against a Rams team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004 seems like a much better option. If the Saints win and the Rams lose, the Panthers would head to L.A. regardless of what they do against the Falcons.
Panthers’ remaining schedule
at Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
At stake for Carolina: Rivera talked about not resting his starters and looking to take momentum into the postseason. In a similar situation in 2015 when the Panthers needed a Week 17 win or an Arizona loss to clinch the top seed, quarterback Cam Newton played the entire game in a 38-10 victory vs. the Bucs.
At stake for Atlanta: The Falcons (9-6) want a chance to defend their NFC crown. They can grab the sixth and final spot with a win or a Seattle loss to Arizona.
What you should know: The Falcons opened as a four-point favorite vs. Carolina, which beat the Falcons 20-17 in a Week 9 matchup in Charlotte behind 86 rushing yards and a touchdown from Newton.
Other NFC contenders
Philadelphia (13-2): The Eagles wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with their victory vs. Oakland, but hardly looked like an invincible No. 1 seed. A shaky Nick Foles and the rest of his offensive teammates were 1-for-14 on third downs vs. the Raiders.
Minnesota (12-3): The Vikings can clinch the No. 2 seed by beating the Bears at home. Minnesota is a 13.5-point favorite.
L.A. Rams (11-4): There’s increasing buzz for Todd Gurley for MVP. The Rams running back and N.C. native has eight touchdowns over the past three games.
New Orleans (11-4): Marshon Lattimore’s butt-aided interception vs. Atlanta helped the Saints reach the playoffs for the first time since ’13 following three consecutive 7-9 seasons.
Seattle (9-6): The only thing better than Ciara moonwalking over the Cowboys’ logo? Another Seahawks-Panthers playoff clash. It’s a longshot, but it could happen.
If you’re a Panthers fan, root for these 3 things
1. Jameis Winston hanging on to the ball: The beat-up Bucs showed up to play last weekend, despite not having much at stake. Winston shredded the Panthers’ secondary, but lost three fumbles. For the Bucs to have a chance vs. the Saints, Winston can’t cough up the ball.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo: Tom Brady’s former backup is 4-0 as a starter for the 49ers. If he can make it 5-0 by beating the Rams, it could help the Panthers’ positioning.
3. A New Year’s miracle: A lot has to break right for the Panthers to grab a first-round bye and at least one home game. But why not dream big when you’re putting those New Year’s resolutions together?
The bottom line:
If the playoffs started today, the top three seeds in the NFC would be staring at the prospects of facing lower seeds quarterbacked by a future Hall of Famer in Drew Brees and the last two league MVPs in Newton and Matt Ryan. The next four weeks are going to be wild.