Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers in the playoffs? Here’s easiest path

As bizarre as it appears, Carolina remains firmly in the playoff race at 4-8-1 after thumping New Orleans 41-10 on Sunday. So what would need to happen for Carolina to make the playoffs for the second straight season? Here’s the easiest scenario for that to happen as I see it.

1. Carolina must win its last three games – at home against Tampa Bay and Cleveland and the finale on the road vs. Atlanta. That won’t be easy, especially the last two. But it’s conceivable. If the Panthers do that, they will finish 7-8-1.

2. New Orleans (5-8) has the easiest remaining schedule of the three teams in contention in the NFC South. The Saints will need to lose once more so as to finish no better than 7-9, against either Chicago, Atlanta or Tampa Bay.

3. Atlanta (5-7) would need to go 2-2 over its final four to also finish 7-9. The Falcons have the hardest schedule of the three contenders: Green Bay on Monday night, followed by Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Carolina.

I don’t think the Panthers can afford even one more loss, because that would make them 6-9-1 at best and either Atlanta or New Orleans will finish at least 7-9. But 7-8-1 could well do it for the Panthers in this strange year.

That would mean Carolina would host someone such as Detroit, Seattle, Dallas, Philadelphia or Arizona in the first round of the playoffs in early January but would also lose as many as a dozen spots in terms of draft position in the first round of the 2015 draft.

•  You know who the Panthers didn’t miss at all on the field Sunday? Antoine Cason. You know who else they didn’t miss at all? DeAngelo Williams. This game was further proof that Jonathan Stewart absolutely has to have more touches than Williams the rest of the season.

•  Kelvin Benjamin said he lost what would have been at least a 40-yard completion “in the lights” when he dropped a first-half pass from Newton. But Benjamin also scored Carolina’s first touchdown, making a fine catch on a 9-yard dart from Newton. In other words, it was a typical day for Benjamin.

•  I would wager Saints receivers dropped at least eight passes.

•  While Luke Kuechly was steady as always Sunday, Thomas Davis was absolutely all over the field at linebacker.

•  Greg Olsen was so much better than Jimmy Graham on Sunday it was as if the two were on different planets.

•  I wrote about Cam Newton having not proved he’s worthy of a $100 million contract extension Sunday. Then he had one of the best games of his pro career. A number of thoughtful Panthers fans emailed me to point out this fact.