A look at the Panthers playoff push in the NFC South

Al Messerschmidt

The Carolina Panthers have positioned themselves for a late playoff push, but is a race for first in the NFC South out of the question?

Cam Newton was asked a simple question following the Panthers' win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- could Carolina catch the Saints? His answer was quick and accurate of how the team feels, yes they can. Five games sit between now and a December 8th showdown with New Orleans, so lets see what it would take to catch the NFC South leaders.

Both teams face a difficult road over the next five weeks. Each schedule includes two games against elite teams, with both Carolina and New Orleans facing the San Francisco 49ers with an added kicker of a tough game against the Patriots and Seahawks respectively. Outside of these four games both teams should have a fairly easy November leading up to their head-to-head games.

Next five for New Orleans: Jets, Cowboys, 49ers, Falcons, Seahawks; Combined record: 22-16 (0.578)

Projected record by 12/8: 9-3

There's a lot of inconsistency coming up on the Saints' schedule. The New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys have a knack for playing teams tough, but also an innate ability to squander good opportunities. The Jets are struggling to find an offensive identity, which makes it almost impossible for Rex Ryan's team to hang in a shootout with New Orleans. Dallas, on the other hand, is a complete crap shoot. Tony Romo is playing some of his best football, but the team can lay an egg at any second.

Atlanta is an easy win, while it's hard to see New Orleans have a good enough defense to stop creative offenses from San Francisco and Seattle. Rob Ryan has helped revitalize the Saints' defense, but it's just not enough. I see this team winning three of its next five games before facing the Panthers.

Next five for Carolina: Falcons, 49ers, Patriots, Dolphins, Buccaneers; Combined record: 17-20 (0.459)

Projected record by 12/8: 7-5

Carolina's overall W/L is highly influenced by the winless Buccaneers, which should be another easy victory.

The issue comes with San Francisco and New England. At this point it's safe to say the 49ers game will be a loss, only because the team matches up so well with the Panthers. Jim Harbaugh's team is better coached, has the offensive line play needed and it's unclear how Carolina can stop the weapons San Francisco brings to the table.

Picking a Patriots' win is contentious, but it will be a very difficult Monday night game. Tom Brady doesn't have a lot of weapons, but he's leveraging the strengths his team has to get past solid opponents with good records.

The wild card in this set is Miami, a team that has lost its confidence and could be easy picking with a poor offensive line -- but the offense still has a lot of weapons to hurt Carolina's secondary.

Like New Orleans I project three wins for the Panthers over Atlanta, Miami and Tampa Bay while dropping games to the 49ers and Patriots.

Where does this put the team?

Two wins is not insurmountable, especially with two head-to-head games in hand. If the Panthers can get to 12/8 two games behind there is a great chance they could beat New Orleans twice and flip the division. This would give Carolina the head-to-head, even in a tie situation.

Can they do it? The rest of 2013 will be tough, there's no question -- but the schedule has gotten significantly weaker for both teams. Newton is right, the Panthers can surpass New Orleans and it holds to be one of the most interesting stretches in team history.

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