The race is on.
The Carolina Panthers (9-4) findthemselves in the thick of things as the complicated playoff chase unfolds within the NFC South.
The Panthers know their best shot at the postseason is winning their final three games. But aside from that, they don’t have much control.
“I think we still have a lot of work cut out for us,” said center Ryan Kalil. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to be, but we’re in a good spot to keep making that push. And 9-4 is a great position to be, with the rest of the season still ahead of us.
“We have a couple of really good teams still left to play, but we have to keep working.”
But as we mentioned, things are ... complicated.
“There’s so many scenarios, so many tiebreakers,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “With three games left, it’s hard to really start rooting for people and predicting how things are going to end up at this point.”
But that didn’t stop the Observer from trying.
Here’s a primer on the playoff situation for the Panthers.
To win the NFC South:
As it stands now, New Orleans wins the NFC South if it wins out. The Saints also own any tiebreaker over Carolina, because they swept the regular-season series.
The Atlanta Falcons, in third place, could also win the division if they win out because it would mean a sweep of the Saints. The Falcons would win the tiebreaker over either New Orleans or Carolina by winning out.
Carolina would need to win out (meaning Atlanta can’t win out) and have the Saints lose at least once to win the division.
To be an NFC wild card:
Because Carolina beat Atlanta in Week 9, they have a slight advantage for the wild card, which seems to be the Panthers’ most direct route to the postseason.
If the Panthers get the season sweep over the Falcons but the Saints win out, Carolina’s chances of securing a wild card spot increase, regardless of a win or loss against Green Bay.
Carolina is projected as a wild card and the No. 5 seed. If the season ended today, the Panthers would play No. 4 seed New Orleans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
What makes Carolina vulnerable are its four losses against NFC opponents. They hurt the Panthers against teams such as Seattle, which has a 6-3 NFC record and is in the hunt for a wild-card berth.
Panthers’ remaining schedule:
Green Bay Packers, Dec. 17, 1 p.m.
At stake for Carolina: Beating another NFC team would help with potential tiebreakers while continuing to put the pressure on the Saints to keep winning.
At stake for Green Bay: The Packers (7-6) kept their playoff hopes alive by winning back-to-back overtime games for the first time in their history. That’s why Aaron Rodgers is expected to play for the first time since breaking his collarbone in Week 6.
What you should know: The last time the Panthers played a quarterback coming off a collarbone injury, it did not go well for Tony Romo.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dec. 24, 1 p.m.
At stake for Carolina: A division victory and momentum heading into the regular-season finale at Atlanta.
At stake for Tampa Bay: Draft positioning for the Bucs (4-9) and perhaps a chance for Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston to prove they can get along – and win.
What you should know: The Panthers sacked Winston three times and intercepted him twice in a 17-3 victory in Tampa in Week 8.
Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 31, 1 p.m.
At stake for Carolina: A sweep of last year’s Super Bowl runnerup, playoff positioning and a boost heading into the postseason.
At stake for Atlanta: The opportunity for Atlanta (8-5) to avenge a November loss to the Panthers and perhaps a chance to make another deep playoff run.
What you should know: There’s still a chance this could be flexed to prime-time on NBC, meaning Panthers fans could be ringing in the new year by watching a potential win-and-you’re-in game for one or both teams.
Other contenders to watch:
Philadelphia (11-2): The Eagles were dealt a crushing blow when QB Carson Wentz tore his ACL. But Philly can wrap up the No. 1 seed and home-field throughout the playoffs by beating the Giants this week.
Minnesota (10-3): Despite falling to the Panthers, Vikings still have the North “on lock,” as Matt Kalil put it. Minnesota is trying to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in its own building.
L.A. Rams (9-4): This week’s showdown vs. the Seahawks will likely decide the West. Winning in Seattle in December is no small task.
New Orleans (9-4): The Saints have an easy remaining schedule, with games vs. the Jets and Tampa Bay sandwiched around a home game vs. the Falcons.
Seattle (8-5): The defense has taken some huge hits, but Russell Wilson is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season.
Detroit (7-6): The Lions could finish 10-6 with wins over Chicago, Cincinnati and Green Bay, but would lose head-to-head tiebreakers with Atlanta and Carolina.
Dallas (7-6): The Cowboys finish with Oakland, Seattle and Philly. Even if they get to 10 wins, the Cowboys would still need help.
If you’re a Panthers fan, root for these 3 things:
1. A 3-0 finish for Carolina: This is the Panthers’ only hope of catching the Saints, and staving off the Falcons for the division title. It would mean the Panthers would host at least one home game, however, the chances of being a No. 1 or No. 2 seed remain very remote.
2. Another loss for the Saints: Carolina wants to avoid going back to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. If Carolina were to win the division, any playoff meeting with New Orleans would take place in Charlotte. The Panthers would still have to win out.
3. Without a division title, finish with best record of wild cards: The only way a wild-card team can get home field advantage is if both wild cards advance to the NFC Championship Game. In that case, the No. 5 seed would host.
The bottom line:
The Panthers’ two losses to New Orleans really hurt their division and home field advantage hopes. It also means that Carolina can’t control its own destiny en route to the playoffs.
The best scenario that is still plausible for the Panthers is to win out and hope the Falcons beat the Saints. The absolute best scenario would be for the Panthers to win out, and the Saints to lose to either the Jets or Tampa Bay, which is unlikely.