Carolina Panthers

With playoff dreams dashed, what will Panthers play for?

Previewing Carolina Panthers versus Washington on Monday Night Football

Charlotte Observer reporters Joseph Person and Jourdan Rodrigue preview Monday night's NFL matchup between Carolina and Washington.
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Charlotte Observer reporters Joseph Person and Jourdan Rodrigue preview Monday night's NFL matchup between Carolina and Washington.

Washington is fighting for its playoff life.

Former Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman is promising to turn up the intensity against his old team.

And ESPN has its “Monday Night Football” cameras and crew in place for the last of the Panthers’ franchise-record five prime-time games in 2016.

Wins by Atlanta and Green Bay on Sunday officially eliminated the Panthers from playoff contention.

So what’s wrong with this high-definition, holiday-season picture?

The game has next to no meaning for Carolina.

The Panthers (5-8) were officially eliminated from playoff contention Sunday, ending an unprecedented, three-year reign as NFC South champions.

Atlanta’s win over San Francisco dashed Carolina’s division hopes, while a Green Bay victory against Chicago meant the Panthers wouldn’t be getting in as a wild card, either.

The Panthers flew to Washington on Sunday knowing their slim playoff hopes could be over by the end of the day.

In actuality, their fate was sealed with a 1-5 start following last year’s 15-1 regular season and Super Bowl run. Only one of 92 previous teams that started 1-5 – the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs – had rallied to make the playoffs under the current format.

Injuries, inconsistent play from 2015 league MVP Cam Newton and a myriad of other issues prevented the Panthers from joining K.C. in bucking the trend.

So the Panthers will show up at FexEx Field on Monday with little more than pride on the line – and an opportunity to damage the playoff dreams of Washington (7-5-1) and their former teammate Norman.

[Cam Newton] is that kid that when your mama tells you don’t go and touch the stove, he’s the kid that’s going to go and touch the stove. He’s gotta see.

Josh Norman, Washington cornerback

“The truth of the matter is it’s not going to affect how we approach them. We’re playing to win,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It doesn’t matter what our situation or circumstances are. The important thing is to go out and play your best and play to win.”

But the Panthers’ approach appears to have changed in one regard.

In a statement on the team’s website, Rivera said he wasn’t sure whether Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly would play Monday despite being cleared from the concussion protocol Saturday.

Kuechly has missed three games in a row since sustaining a concussion Nov. 17 against New Orleans that left him sobbing and hyperventilating as he was carted off the field.

Rivera has said multiple times the team had no plans to shut Kuechly down. But fading from the playoff race presumably gave the organization pause about exposing Kuechly to additional hits and a risk of another head injury.

Newton is expected to start despite being limited by a sore throwing shoulder last week. Newton, who’s gone four consecutive games without completing 50 percent of his passes, will try to break out of his funk against a Norman-led Washington secondary.

Norman and Newton were not-so-friendly adversaries during Norman’s four seasons in Charlotte. They competed in everything from 1-on-1 pass drills to pick-up basketball and volleyball games in Atlanta that pitted Newton and his cousins against Norman and his brothers.

You’ll go crazy if you spend a lot of time looking back on what could have been.

Thomas Davis, Carolina linebacker

Their emotions boiled over into a training camp fight in 2015 when Norman showboated on his way to the end zone after intercepting Newton.

Norman is certain Newton will challenge him by throwing his way – whether it’s a well-advised pass or not.

“He’s that kid that when your mama tells you don’t go and touch the stove, he’s the kid that’s going to go and touch the stove. He’s gotta see,” Norman told the Observer. “So I’m going to look for it. I’m gonna have fun with it.”

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded Norman’s franchise tag in April, making one of the league’s best cover corners a free agent a week before the draft. Washington and Norman agreed to a 5-year, $75 million deal three days later.

Norman’s familiarity with Newton and Carolina’s receivers – and vice versa – should make for fascinating subplot. Throw in Norman’s history of going into “Dark Knight” mode to try to get in the heads of opposing wideouts, and it could be an eventful night on the outskirts of the nation’s capital.

Carolina Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin is looking forward to Monday night's matchup with his former teammate, Washington cornerback Josh Norman.

“They know one of me. I know all of them,” Norman said, laughing. “It’s going to be fun. It’s definitely going to be interesting.”

A late-December game with playoff implications would have been more interesting for the Panthers. Instead, they join a long list of teams victimized by the supposed curse of the Super Bowl loser.

The 1993 Buffalo Bills were the last Super Bowl runner-up to make it back to the game the following season.

The Panthers had their chances, but were unable to close out tight games. They’re 2-5 in games decided by a field goal or less.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

“I feel like you’ll go crazy if you spend a lot of time looking back on what could have been,” veteran linebacker Thomas Davis said. “ We’re totally focused in on what’s ahead of us right now. The thing that we have to focus on the most right now is Washington. ...

“We really can’t get caught up on what could have been.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

Carolina at Washington

Where:

FedEx Field, Landover, Md.

When:

Monday, 8:30 p.m.

Watch:

ESPN (Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters)

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