Scott Fowler

If Panthers are going to unlock a trip to NFC playoffs, key is simple (and at hand)

Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers on Matthew Stafford and an indoor practice facility

Julius Peppers comments on an Matthew Stafford and a potential indoor practice facility by next year.
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Julius Peppers comments on an Matthew Stafford and a potential indoor practice facility by next year.

If the Carolina Panthers plan to get on any sort of roll, these next four games must be the start of it.

Beginning Sunday at Detroit, Carolina (6-3) doesn’t face another team with a winning record for a month. The Lions (3-6) are followed on Carolina’s schedule by a home game against Seattle (5-5) and two more road games, against Tampa Bay (3-6) and Cleveland (3-6-1).

A four-game sweep for the Panthers isn’t likely, but it is certainly possible. Carolina has more overall talent than all four of those teams. The closest in talent level would be Seattle, which still has Russell Wilson at quarterback. Wilson has given the Panthers fits for many years, but his supporting cast isn’t what it used to be and that’s the one game of these upcoming four that will be played at home for Carolina.

Carolina needs to go at least 3-1 in this stretch, because the last three games are very difficult — two games against New Orleans (8-1) that sandwich a home game against Atlanta (4-5). The Falcons game will be the most winnable of those three, but Atlanta already has beaten Carolina once this year. New Orleans went 3-0 against Carolina in 2017, including the playoffs, and is playing even better now.

Get to that final three-game stretch with at least a 9-4 record and the Panthers should be able to squeeze into the NFC playoffs.

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Carolina also traveled to Detroit in 2017, edging the Lions 27-24 behind tight end Ed Dickson’s 175 receiving yards. The Panthers’ game against Detroit Sunday will be the first of four straight games for Carolina (6-3) against teams that currently don’t have a winning record. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

But split the next four and get there at 8-5? That’s a recipe for about a 9-7 season and, quite possibly for no postseason at all.

The key will be winning on the road for a Carolina team that is 1-3 away from Bank of America Stadium so far this year. Starting to do that — against a Detroit team languishing in the cellar of the NFC North — is essential.

I came across this when researching a Julius Peppers column a few days ago: In 2002, when the Panthers drafted Peppers with the No. 2 overall pick of the draft, DJ Moore was 5 years old. Now they are teammates.

Another Peppers note: A few years ago, I was talking to former Carolina head coach George Seifert on the phone. He made a joke about the 1-15 Panthers season that got him fired following the 2001 season.

“I gave them an opportunity to get a pretty good pass rusher — a guy that helped them get to the Super Bowl,” Seifert said, referring to Peppers. “Out of something bad came something good, right?”

On either side of Peppers in that draft, incidentally, came two quarterbacks who turned into journeymen who never quite panned out: David Carr (Houston) at No. 1 and Joey Harrington (Detroit) at No. 3.

Non-football note: If you’re feeling bad today for some reason, go look up the new Elton John Christmas-themed ad online and watch it. Best 140 seconds you’ll spend all day.

Prediction time: I moved to 7-2 on the season by correctly forecasting Pittsburgh’s victory over Carolina on Nov. 8. I think the Panthers, stung by that 52-21 evisceration, will get back on track Sunday.

My pick: Carolina 31, Detroit 23.

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