The 2013 NFL Playoff Picture for the Carolina Panthers: the How's and Why's

Last night, I reviewed all of the playoff scenarios for the New Orleans Saints, which included a review of most of Carolina's postseason hopes. Since interactions with several Panther fans have been refreshing this past week, on both CSC and CSR, I thought I would go ahead and put together a breakdown of the Panthers playoff hopes after their Sunday night loss in New Orleans.

For more information about the NFL's tie-breaking procedures, or to better understand the details of how the Panthers could take the NFC South title from the Saints, feel free to check out the article which came out on CSC this morning.


Following an eventful weekend of football, the Carolina Panthers (9-4) must finish strong if they want to make the playoffs this year. Right now, the possibilities range from claiming the No.1 seed to missing the postseason altogether. Winning the rematch against the New Orleans Saints on December 21st would certainly help the Panthers get into the playoffs, but wouldn't guarantee them a wildcard berth, much less the division. For Carolina to control its own destiny, and not rely on other teams losing, only three wins would guarantee a spot in the postseason. Below, I cover the various possible roads to the postseason for the Panthers, including a review of the most relevant tiebreakers.

What happens if they don't win any more games?

Currently, the Niners (9-4), Cardinals (8-5), Eagles (8-6), Lions (7-6), Bears (7-6), Cowboys (7-6) and Packers (6-6-1) are all poised to overtake a Panthers team that loses out the rest of the season, to finish (9-7). It is possible that these teams lose the right combination of games to let the Panthers in the playoffs with only nine wins. If the Cardinals win even one game, however, they would beat the Panthers in a head-to-head tiebreaker. It is likely that at least two of those seven teams will finish the season with records good enough to knock a nine-win Carolina franchise out of the postseason.

Will one more win lock the Panthers into the playoffs?

Although there would be a good amount of satisfaction gained from beating the Saints when they travel to Carolina, even a win against New Orleans wouldn't guarantee the Panthers a berth in the playoffs. If the Saints defeat the Rams and Bucs, they are guaranteed the No.2 seed even with a loss to the Panthers. Also, the Cardinals own the tiebreaker over the Panthers, so either Arizona or San Francisco (9-4) would have to lose two of their remaining games if one win is going to be enough for Carolina to beat either of them into the postseason.

The Packers would no longer be a threat after a Carolina win, and the Cowboys would win the NFC East if they defeated the Eagles to finish (10-6). Also, the Panthers are guaranteed the tiebreaker against a Bears team which has already lost six conference games. However, they would lose the conference tiebreaker to the Eagles.

If the Panthers defeat only the Jets, they lose the conference tiebreaker to the Detroit Lions; though if Carolina's only victory comes against the Saints or Falcons, the Panthers would have the same conference record as the Lions. Detroit's loss to the Buccaneers would give Carolina the win in that situation, regardless of how the Lions perform against the Giants.

So one win would put the Panthers beyond the reach of the Cowboys, Bears, and possibly the Lions; while the Eagles, Cardinals, Niners (and possibly Lions) could still knock the Panthers out of the playoffs.

Would two wins be enough?

An eleven-win record is out of reach for everyone else in the NFC but the Seahawks, Niners, Saints, Eagles, and Cardinals. If the Eagles have eleven wins, they are representing the NFC East in the postseason, so they are no longer a threat. The Seahawks and Cardinals own the tiebreakers against Carolina, while the Niners do not. So if Seattle loses out, and the 49ers win the NFC West, Seattle would take a wildcard spot. If the Cardinals win out, they could take the other. To better understand the situations in which eleven wins would give the NFC South to New Orleans or Carolina, check out this morning's article on CSC.

So two Carolina wins would eliminate threats from the Eagles and Lions, while leaving five teams fighting for four playoff berths. If the Panthers don't win the NFC South, they need the Cardinals to lose or the Seahawks to win the NFC West in order to make the playoffs with two wins. Otherwise, they lose head-to-head wildcard tiebreakers to both the Seahawks and Cardinals. That scenario only happens if Seattle loses out, Arizona wins out, and the Niners win their next two games; but it's possible.

What will winning all three do for the Panthers?

If the Saints lose to either the Rams or Bucs, then the Panthers win the NFC South with three wins. If the unlikely scenario outlined at the end of the previous paragraph were to happen, Carolina could even secure the No.1 seed with three wins. Otherwise, Cam Newton is guaranteed a wildcard berth. Arizona can not end the season with twelve wins, and either the Seahawks or Niners would win the NFC West. The other NFC West team would take one wildcard berth, leaving the other for Carolina.

So what you're saying is...

  • The Panthers could lose their remaining three games, and still make the playoffs, if several other teams lose enough games.
  • Even three wins would not guarantee Carolina the division title, though it would guarantee the team a playoff berth.
  • Two wins would almost guarantee the Panthers make the postseason, unless... Seattle loses out, Arizona wins out, and the Niners win their next two games. This would leave the Seahawks and Cardinals as the two wildcard teams, unless the stars otherwise align (giving Carolina the division, and New Orleans the wildcard over Arizona).
  • The Panthers could also take the top seed in the NFC: with three wins, two Saints losses, and the above very unlikely scenario playing out for the NFC West.

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