Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is right in saying his team is still in the thick of things in the NFC South, which says more about the division than how the Panthers have played.
Carolina (3-5-1) lost a key divisional game to New Orleans (4-4) last week, failing to hold serve against a Saints team that hadn’t won on the road since last November.
Considering it has been a month since the Panthers have won a game – in the division or otherwise – laying out a path for them to make the playoffs feels a little like an exercise in futility.
But the Panthers play in a flawed division with three games remaining against Tampa Bay and Atlanta, which have three wins between them.
It probably will take at least eight wins to claim the NFC South, and the Saints have a tough schedule coming up. New Orleans’ next four games are against teams with .500 records or better – San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh – although the first three are at the Superdome, where the Saints are undefeated.
If Carolina wants to go to the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time in its 20-year history, here’s a five-point plan for the Panthers to follow.
1. Beat Philadelphia.
The Panthers can’t keep talking about having a shot at the playoffs without actually winning. The Monday night game at Philadelphia ends a five-game stretch against 2013 playoff teams for the Panthers, who are winless through the first four.
But Carolina is catching the Eagles (6-2) at a good time. Quarterback Nick Foles has a cracked collarbone and will be replaced by Mark Sanchez, who played well in relief of Foles against Houston.
The Eagles also lost linebacker DeMeco Ryans to an Achilles injury against the Texans. Ryans has been Philadelphia’s emotional leader on defense since coming over in a trade with Houston in 2012.
A loss to Philly would give the Panthers virtually no margin of error over their final six games.
2. Re-establish the run game.
The Panthers finally have running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams healthy at the same time. Now it’s up to offensive coordinator Mike Shula to use them.
Shula had a nearly 50-50, run/pass balance during the 12-win season in 2013. Through nine games this season, the Panthers are passing on about 58 percent of their offensive snaps.
After Williams and Stewart combined for 17 touches against the Saints, Rivera said they deserved more.
Running the ball would also benefit an offensive line that has not given Cam Newton much faith in his pass protection. Center Ryan Kalil is a skilled run-blocker, and undrafted rookie guard Andrew Norwell has an aggressive mentality that is better served in the run game.
Getting the run game going also will help the offense on the field and keep the defense fresh. The Panthers are in the middle of the pack in time of possession after ranking among the league leaders last season.
“We all can say that, and I’m saying that, but you’ve got to make first downs,” Shula said of running the ball more. “We need to make more positive yards on first and second down, not have holding calls, not have negative plays.”
3. Get healthy, stay healthy.
The Panthers have lost only one starter to a season-ending injury – outside linebacker Chase Blackburn, who was in a platoon with A.J. Klein. But the nagging injuries caught up with the offensive line against New Orleans, when undrafted rookie David Foucault was overmatched at left tackle.
The “mini-bye” after a Thursday game against the Saints should allow several starters to return at key positions, including left tackle Byron Bell, left guard Amini Silatolu, free safety Thomas DeCoud and nickel corner Bené Benwikere.
The Panthers also are expected to get fullback Mike Tolbert back for a Week 13 trip to Minnesota, which could be a late-season boost to the short passing game and goal-line offense.
4. Get better in the red zone.
The Panthers rank near the bottom of the league in red zone scoring, as well as keeping opponents out of the end zone after they’ve driven inside the 20.
The defense started promisingly against the Saints, forcing turnovers on their first two drives – including an interception by defensive tackle Dwan Edwards in the red zone.
But the Saints’ next four red-zone chances all ended with touchdowns.
The offense was brutal in losses to Seattle and the Saints in failing to cash in on scoring chances and/or takeaways by the defense.
The Panthers are tied for eighth with a turnover-margin of plus-4, but they’ve not done enough to change momentum following their 16 takeaways.
5. Play and coach with urgency.
When the Panthers started 1-3 last season and Rivera was in danger of losing his job, Rivera ditched his conservative tendencies on fourth down and “Riverboat Ron” was born.
Rivera, who signed a three-year extension during the offseason, is still gambling a bit – the Panthers’ 71 percent (5 of 7) conversion rate on fourth downs trails only Oakland. But the go-for-it mentality has been muted, as when Rivera opted for the overtime field goal at Cincinnati.
The defensive energy also seems to be a tick or two down from 2013. A lot of that can be attributed to the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy, whose relentlessness was infectious, cornerback Josh Norman said.
But the Panthers have other talented and high-energy players.
Coaches can do a better job putting them in positions to make an impact (see Olsen, Greg). But it’s a lot easier to run around and play with enthusiasm when you’re winning, which the Panthers need to start doing.
In a hurry.