With one game to go on the season, the surging Carolina Panthers could claw their way to a #2 finish in the NFC South. How? Already tied with the Buccaneers, if Carolina can win their final game against New Orleans...while Tampa Bay loses to the dominating Atlanta Falcons...the Panthers could edge out both the Bucs (by one game) and the Saints (by virtue of going 2-0 against them in face-to-face match-ups).
This would put the NFC South in the following order:
#1 - Atlanta Falcons (14-2)
#2 - Carolina Panthers (7-9)
#3 - New Orleans Saints (7-9)
#4 - Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10)
Possible? Yes. Probable? Maybe. Even though the Falcons already have the homefield advantage locked up, the Bucs have been slumping badly in their most recent games. Atlanta could still take them down even while resting some key starters and no one would be surprised. This game also takes place in the Georgia Dome, so the Falcons will already have the homefield advantage even *before* they get into the playoffs.
As for the Panthers/Saints game, we all know Carolina handled Drew Brees and company fairly well the first time around. Both teams are much changed, however. The Saints have regained their form and the return of Jonathan Vilma and Marques Colston could have a larger impact than the first time they played. Carolina is also missing a lot of key starters from that first game, but the young replacements playing for the Panthers are seemingly hitting their stride. There's no question this team is playing with passion now. Maybe it's for Ron Rivera? And by that, I don't just mean for helping him keep *his* job. Instead, many of these players (especially the young ones who are getting playing time right now) are also playing for their jobs going into the off-season. If the same team which beat Atlanta in week 14 shows up strong against the Saints to close out the season, the Panthers could definitely finish #2 in the NFC South.
What does that mean long-term? A #2 finish will ensure they face a slightly tougher schedule next season. And, if Rivera keeps his job, that'll certainly pose an entirely new litmus test for his third year as an NFL head coach. A 7-9 record and #2 finish in their division would also impact the Panthers' draft order in April. They'd be picking a lot lower than their record of 3 weeks ago. That means they won't necessarily have a chance to grab one of the premier draft picks unless they want to trade up. It'll be interesting to see if the new GM wants to pursue something like that. Since next year's draft crop isn't necessarily as deep at some of the positions of need the Panthers will likely be eyeing, I'm not sure that happens. Instead, they'll be trying to improve by using their draft picks as wisely as possible and improve depth for our defensive secondary, offensive line, and defensive line.
Regardless, it would obviously do a lot for team morale if the Panthers can win their final game to get to 3-3 in the division. And, when you consider two of their division losses came against what will likely be the last place Bucs, that would likely bode well for their aspirations in 2013. Additionally, when you look back at all the close games where the Panthers hadn't quite figured out how to finish (including the flukish loss to Atlanta when they had a commanding lead in the 4th quarter), this team had an outside shot at going undefeated in the division if they could have found their footing early enough...and they *could* have amassed a good enough record to be contending for a wild card spot against Seattle, Minnesota, Chicago, and Washington. Simply put, these Panthers aren't as bad their early season performances indicate. The players have bought in...and some of that's because there are new players on the field. The coaches have adapted, both by simplifying things for Cam and outright modifying their game planning and game management. So, personally, I think there's more positive here than negative. And, more importantly, I think the *players* believe that, too.
Sure, everyone has 20/20 hindsight. And, it's easy to make excuses for the 7-9 record when they were so many close games. But, if you're more of an optimist than a pessimist, I think the future continues to look bright for the Panthers. A lot of experts classify them as the "sleeping giant" of the league. And I think they'll say that going into next year, too. The difference is going to lie in how much Carolina can improve from this season to the next with their off-season moves. And that includes what they do about their coaching staff (in terms of retention or firing), as well as the change at the general manager position. To me, if the Panthers beat the Saints and close out the year with 4 wins in a row (not to mention 5 of their last 6), I think Rivera should stay...regardless of the new GM's thoughts on the matter. Give the man another year and see how much he can sustain this momentum.
I've got to believe the coaches (including Chud) have learned a lot from their second year with the Panthers. I think the younger players are showing promise and things will improve again when we get some of our starters back. A fresh approach at the general manager position in terms of drafting and free agency could improve the situation further, as well. And, I think we've seen some sure growth with Cam at the QB position. This team should be primed, both for next week against New Orleans *and* for next season.
But that's just my two cents,