Scott Fowler

Feast or famine? A closer look at the Carolina Panthers’ playoff scenarios

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) was sacked eight times when Minnesota beat Carolina, 22-10, in 2016. The loss snapped a 14-game home winning streak for Carolina, which hosts the Vikings again on Sunday.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) was sacked eight times when Minnesota beat Carolina, 22-10, in 2016. The loss snapped a 14-game home winning streak for Carolina, which hosts the Vikings again on Sunday.

The Carolina Panthers have a December feast set out before them. White tablecloth. Gorgeous food and wine. That extra fork you’re not sure what to do with.

“Everything’s on the table for us,” Panthers tight end Ed Dickson said Wednesday.

But there’s one catch with this feast: The Panthers have to do something very swiftly – something almost magical – to eat the food before it disappears.

Have you ever seen that trick where somebody pulls a tablecloth out from under a meal and leaves every full wineglass standing in place?

That’s what the Panthers are about to try to do for the rest of this month. They have to yank the tablecloth. They are either going to pull off a stunning feat that leaves everyone applauding, or else they are going to break a lot of stuff.

And it could go either way.

Feast or famine.

If the playoffs started today, the Panthers would be the NFC’s No. 6 seed and would play at the No. 3 L.A. Rams in early January. Seattle would be No. 5. The Seahawks have an 8-4 record, just like Carolina, but are 6-3 in the NFC compared with the Panthers’ mediocre 4-4 NFC mark that will hurt Carolina in lots of tiebreaker scenarios.

Much depends on Sunday, when we find out if the Panthers have the wherewithal to get a statement win at home. Minnesota is 10-2 and would be the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed at the moment, but I actually think the Panthers match up better with the Vikings than they do the New Orleans Saints. Minnesota’s offense is not as explosive as New Orleans’. This could be a defensive struggle.

Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen (97) closed in on Cam Newton in 2016 for one of the Vikings’ eight sacks in the 22-10 win. Griffen has 12 sacks so far in 2017, ranking him fourth in the NFL. David T. Foster III

In any case, Panthers fans should be rooting for Atlanta and Seattle to lose every time out (including the Thursday night Saints-Falcons game). It’s unlikely Carolina can catch the Saints for the NFC South lead – New Orleans is a game ahead already and also would win the tiebreaker with Carolina. So the Panthers need to stay ahead of either Atlanta (7-5) or Seattle to ensure a spot in the playoffs.

Or, as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn put it Wednesday: “If we defend our dirt, we’re in the playoffs. So we’ve got to go out there and defend our dirt.”

Here are a couple of thought about the Panthers’ five possible scenarios over the final four games – assuming no tie games. The percentage in parentheses indicates how likely I think this scenario is for the Panthers:

4-0 finish, 12-4 overall record (10 percent chance): The Panthers’ three home games in a row work to their advantage, but going 4-0 over the last four would be a mighty big “ask.” Carolina would need to not only beat Minnesota (10-2), but also Green Bay (6-6) with Aaron Rodgers likely back on the field and Tampa Bay (4-8) on Christmas Eve. Then the Panthers would need to go to Atlanta (7-5) and win one more time on New Year’s Eve.

Winning all four games seems unlikely because while the Panthers have played excellent football at times this season (winning at New England, for instance), they have rarely sustained excellence for several weeks at a stretch. If Carolina does manage 4-0, however, New Orleans would still need to go 2-2 for Carolina to win the NFC South and land at least one guaranteed playoff home game.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess, left, looks for extra yardage in Carolina’s 20-17 win over Atlanta in November. The Panthers (8-4) and Falcons (7-5) are both competing for an NFC playoff spot but trailing New Orleans (9-3) in the NFC South standings. Jeff Siner

3-1 finish, 11-5 overall record (20 percent chance): I could see this one happening, but only if the Panthers beat Minnesota Sunday. The Vikings sacked Cam Newton a staggering eight times a year ago – he has to be protected much more adequately this time around. An 11-5 record would almost certainly be enough for a playoff wildcard.

2-2 finish, 10-6 overall record (35 percent chance): At the beginning of the season I picked Carolina to go 10-6, and I still feel like this is the most likely scenario.

How does it happen? Probably by beating the Bays – Green and Tampa – and losing to Minnesota and Atlanta. Would this get you into the playoffs? Questionable, because one 10-win team in the NFC may not get in and all of Carolina’s losses are in the NFC.

If the Panthers go 2-2, it’s much better for them to get one of those two victories at Atlanta. That Dec. 31 season finale may well be a “win and you’re in” scenario.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, left, breaks free for yardage against Atlanta in November. The Panthers won, 20-17, and face the Falcons again in Atlanta on Dec. 31st in a game that will almost certainly carry playoff implications. Jeff Siner

1-3 finish, 9-7 overall record (25 percent chance): A 9-7 mark would likely mean the Panthers miss the playoffs for the second straight season. The schedule’s difficulty means this is very possible. A win over Tampa Bay and a loss to the other three foes would be the most obvious scenario.

0-4 finish, 8-8 overall record (10 percent chance): Talk about a collapse – this would be the sort of finish that could get people fired. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but a major injury or two and a couple of ill-timed interceptions and it certainly could.

As of now, though, as Dickson said, everything remains on the table for Carolina. Added running back Christian McCaffrey: “We’ve just got to show up – and ball out.”

That, and pull the tablecloth exactly right.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler