Sunday afternoon was one in which you could go down the rabbit hole of NFL scoreboard-watching and not emerge for hours, as bleary-eyed as if you had started New Year’s Eve six hours early.
Not only were the Carolina Panthers playing Atlanta – and ultimately losing 22-10 after an awful offensive performance by Cam Newton and company – but at the same time New Orleans and the L.A. Rams were also playing games that would directly impact the Panthers’ playoff seeding.
And after it all shook out, the Panthers will be shaking their head over this big missed opportunity.
Because New Orleans was upset by Tampa Bay in the final seconds and the L.A. Rams lost to San Francisco, a Carolina win would have given the Panthers the NFC South division title, the No. 3 seed and a home playoff game next week.
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Instead, because Carolina lost, the Panthers are the No. 5 playoff seed and must go to No. 4 seed New Orleans to play a game Sunday at 4:40 p.m. The Saints have already beaten Carolina twice this season.
For the purposes of this story, I am only looking at the NFC playoffs. Each team’s playoff seed is in parentheses.
There will be two NFC playoff games this coming weekend:
Carolina Panthers (5) at New Orleans Saints (4), Sunday at 4:40 p.m. (FOX).
Oddly enough, teams No. 3, 4 and 5 in the NFC all stayed the same after Sunday’s results because of losses by each of them. Cam Newton’s three-interception day – one of the worst of his career on a day he began with nine straight incompletions – meant the Panthers could not make the leap from seed No. 5 to seed No. 3 that was available to them.
The Saints won’t come in with momentum either, however. New Orleans lost 31-24 on a last-second touchdown to a Tampa Bay team that came in 4-11, and the Saints were playing their hardest given they didn’t know how the other games were going to turn out. If Carolina is going to find any redemption in New Orleans, Newton will have to be much better (against a Saints defense that looked very vulnerable Sunday) and the Panthers’ defense will have to find an answer for the Saints’ powerful offense, led by a pair of Pro Bowl running backs.
The 4:40 p.m. Sunday game time means this will be the final NFL playoff game of the four played next weekend.
Atlanta (6) at the L.A. Rams (3), Saturday at 8:15 p.m. (NBC).
The Rams were very careful Sunday, losing badly to the San Francisco 49ers while holding out many of their key players (including quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley, who has been the league’s most effective back all season).
The Rams averaged an NFL-best 31 points per game coming into Sunday before they basically tanked their last game. So the crucial matchup here will be the Falcons defense vs. a Rams offense that reminds me of those explosive old Rams teams with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk.
Atlanta will actually be the only team playing next Sunday in the NFC that isn’t coming in off a loss. The Falcons were very good Sunday, leading the entire way against Carolina and ensuring that Atlanta received the NFC’s final berth over Seattle.
If Atlanta upsets the Rams, the Falcons would be guaranteed to go to Philadelphia to face the Eagles the weekend of Jan. 13-14. If the Rams win, they would go to Minnesota Jan. 13 or 14.
As for the NFC byes, they go to Philadelphia (1) and Minnesota (2).
The Vikings may well be in the best position, however. The Eagles have looked very vulnerable ever since Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury. Both teams get to skip next weekend, and then the lowest surviving seed from wild-card weekend will go to Philadelphia and the highest to Minnesota.
But if the Eagles lose during the Jan. 13-14 divisional playoff weekend and Minnesota wins, that could clear a path for the Vikings to play an unprecedented three straight playoff games (including the Feb. 4 Super Bowl) on their home turf.