OK, so it’s not as confusing as last week.
But the Panthers still have a lot on the line heading into Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay, the last home regular-season game of the year.
Carolina (10-4) can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Buccaneers (4-10), who have not won a divisional game all season. They can also clinch a playoff spot with a Dallas-Seattle tie, but let’s face it, beating Tampa Bay is more likely.
Here’s a primer on the playoff situation in Week 16 for the Panthers.
Carolina wins both of its next two games – a home contest against Tampa Bay and a road game at Atlanta – and the Chick-fil-A stays open on Sunday in the fancy new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
If both Carolina and Atlanta win Sunday (Atlanta plays New Orleans on a short week), the New Year’s Eve game in Atlanta will decide the NFC South champion. If the Panthers win out and the Rams, Vikings and Saints all go 1-1 or worse, the Panthers can get a No. 2 seed because they own the tiebreaker over Minnesota.
The Panthers could still miss the playoffs, which might entice the next ownership group to clean house (like, really clean house).
If Carolina loses out and either Dallas or Seattle wins out, the Panthers would lose the tiebreaker because of its conference record (6-6 in this scenario). After the Cowboys and Seahawks play each other this week at Jerry World, the Dallas goes to Philadelphia in Week 17 – a tough test unless the Eagles clinch the No. 1 seed this week and are resting their starters.
Seattle wraps up the regular season at home against an Arizona team that’s ready for golf season.
Panthers’ remaining schedule
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
At stake for Carolina: The Panthers could be extremely thin at linebacker, with Thomas Davis suspended one game (after his two-game suspension was reduced by appeal) and Shaq Thompson’s status potentially in question because of a foot injury.
Carolina can clinch a playoff spot winning this week, and avoid chaos in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve.
At stake for Tampa Bay: The Bucs (4-10) played Atlanta tough on Monday night before falling 24-21 when Patrick Murray’s 54-yard FG try sailed wide right. Dirk Koetter could be coaching for his job.
What you should know: Tampa Bay also has issues at linebacker. Former Panthers LB Adarius Glanton, who was filling in for the injured Lavonte David (hamstring), was carted off in the second half vs. Atlanta with a lower leg injury.
Atlanta Falcons, Dec. 31, 1 p.m.
At stake for Carolina: The Panthers clinched the NFC South in Atlanta in 2013 and ’14. If the Panthers win out and get help with a New Orleans loss, they could be celebrating another division title in the Falcons’ new building.
At stake for Atlanta: The Falcons (9-5) still control their own destiny after barely holding off the Bucs. They can win the South by beating New Orleans and Carolina the next two weeks.
What you should know: Take a look at the Week 17 schedule and it’s becoming increasingly likely the Panthers and Falcons will be playing in primetime on New Year’s Eve. Can you imagine how festive Cam Newton’s fez will be?
Other NFC contenders
Philadelphia (12-2): Nick Foles looked good (24 of 38, 237, 4 touchdowns) vs. the Giants in his first start since Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL. The Eagles defense was another story, allowing Eli Manning to throw for 434 yards.
Minnesota (11-3): The Vikings need the Eagles to slip to grab the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the stadium that will host Super Bowl LII.
L.A. Rams (10-4): The Rams looked like the weakest of the likely NFC division winners – until they put up 42 points at Seattle. Sean McVay has the NFL’s most interesting offense. Stay thirsty, L.A. fans.
New Orleans (10-4): The Saints overcame three turnovers to beat the Jets, thanks to Drew Brees and his explosive cast of weapons around him.
Seattle (8-6): The Seahawks’ injury-ravaged defense looks like it’s finally run out of gas. Seattle needs to beat Dallas and Arizona and hope for help.
Detroit (8-6): The Lions went 1-3 vs. the NFC South, with their lone win a 3-point victory vs. Tampa Bay.
Dallas (8-6): If the Cowboys make the playoffs, they’ll have to send ref Gene Steratore a thank-you card for his generous, index card-aided measurement in the Dallas victory at Oakland.
If you’re a Panthers fan, root for these 3 things
1. Avoid an upset vs. Bucs: It sounds like Tampa Bay, already struggling, will have to deal with a slew of injuries to playmakers this week, including to tight end O.J. Howard and receiver DeSean Jackson.
2. Just keep winning: Carolina doesn’t exactly control its fate in the playoffs this season, but taking care of two very winnable games will put it in a great position to make a postseason push.
3. David Mayo: The backup linebacker may have to step up big time without Davis and potentially without Thompson, at the most crucial time of year.
The bottom line:
Buckle in, folks. It’s going to be an interesting 14 days.