The Carolina Panthers have impressed down the stretch of the 2018 season at staying right in the mix of the NFC Wild Card picture. It is impressive, mind you, because all of the contenders are hovering around .500 records and all it would have taken was two wins over the last five games to virtually seal a ticket to the post season. Instead, the Panthers have managed to lose ground in the running without completely falling out of the race. This says more about the general competence of the NFC this year than it does about the Panthers.
Tonight is the last game of Week 15. There will be two games left on everybody’s schedule come tomorrow and a universally expected loss to the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football won’t technically eliminate the Panthers from contention. Fivethirtyeight is forecasting a 5% chance that the Panthers make the playoffs after this weekend’s slate of games was factored in. I personally think that is generous, but weirder things have happened.
The Panthers are trailing the Seattle Seahawks, the Minnesota Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys, and Washington. One of those three NFC East teams has to, by rule, win their division. That leaves four teams in the wild card race with a better record than Carolina. Only the Seahawks have a two game lead, plus the tie breaker on the Panthers. Washington also owns a tie breaker over the Panthers.
If Seattle and Washington finish the season at 9-7 —the best possible record the Panthers could obtain— then they would each edge out the Panthers. That makes our rooting interests for these next two weeks easy as far as they are concerned. They both need to lose at least one game and preferably both.
The Cowboys, at 8-6 presently, are in the best position to win their division. We can largely ignore them. If they end at 9-7 or 8-8 and somehow lose control of the NFC East then any tie in the records between Carolina and Dallas would default to the Panthers, courtesy of their season opening win.
That leaves the Eagles and the Vikings. The Vikings currently stand a game and a half ahead of the Panthers. Their remaining opponents are the Lions, who the Panthers couldn’t beat, and the Bears, who are actually good. They are the real threat. One more win by the Vikings puts the playoffs essentially out of reach for Carolina.
The Eagles are facing the Texans and Washington. Since the Panthers have beaten Philadelphia this year and we are already rooting for Washington to lose out, we don’t ultimately care what they do yet. The Panthers get in over Philly in the event of a tie and they currently stand with as many losses as the Panthers have.
It is safe to assume that the Panthers are going to lose at least one of their next three games. The Falcon’s offense is still dangerous at times and the Saints are simply better than the Panthers in all three phases of the game. If the Panthers lose two games then they are out regardless of what other teams do. They still have a narrow chance of making it if they only lose one game. That means, no matter what happens tonight —no matter how many scores they lose by— the Panthers will still have a shot at the playoffs tomorrow morning. Nobody in the NFC has more than a two game lead and there will still be two games remaining.