Most preseason predictions for the Carolina Panthers all read the same, a talented team that was unlikely to make the playoffs in a stacked NFC. Two months later the conference is in flames and the Panthers have the second-best chance to earn a Wild Card, according to Football Outsiders.
Their DVOA playoff predictions take into account the remaining strength of schedule, paired with how well a team is playing. It gives the Panthers a 29.3-percent chance to win a Wild Card and a 22.1-percent chance to win the NFC South -- even with their lone win. The only team with a better shot to earn the Wild Cad, according to FO is the San Francisco 49ers at 44.4-percent.
The Atlanta Falcons have just an 11.3-percent chance to make the playoffs in any scenario. Herein lies the issue in the NFC, good teams falling on their face (San Francisco and Green Bay) -- while others are being discovered as 2012's paper tigers (Minnesota and Washington).
Carolina faces a five-game stretch without a discernible challenge. Anything can happen in the NFL from week-to-week, no need for reminders, but with Arizona, Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta coming up the hardest challenge could easily be this week against the Cardinals. Atlanta is still a scary team, but injuries have accentuated the team's weaknesses.
It's not all sunshine and roses, however. The failing of DVOA is that the metric is unable to account for intangibles. The word is mostly overblown when discussing quarterback evaluation, but there are some truths that can't be accounted for in a metric. The Panthers are ranked very highly in DVOA right now largely because of how well they played the Seattle Seahawks. A team they played when defenders were missing due to injury or suspension, who has a history of playing poorly away from home, with even more of a history of struggling in early road games on the east coast. The close-loss to Seattle was good, but not as impressive as the metric shows.
A back-door playoff entrance would be fascinating from an organizational perspective. Is 9-7 and an unlikely playoff spot enough to save Ron Rivera's job? More importantly: Should it be? The difference between 7-9 and 9-7 is razor thin, and when paired with a weak schedule it's hardly reassuring.
Those are questions for December. Right now it's October and time to enjoy the games we have while the season lasts. It might be time to put those early-January vacation plans on pause, because the Panthers have a very good shot -- as crazy as it sounds.