The Carolina Panthers had hoped to use their Sunday Night Football matchup with the New Orleans Saints as an opportunity to prove to the world that they are for real and a legitimate championship contender. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Saints showed them they still have a thing or two learn, as New Orleans cruised to a 31-13 win. This loss is a disappointing setback for the Panthers, but it doesn’t change their goals for the playoffs, or the fact that they remain the overwhelming favorite in the Wild Card race.
The Panthers and San Francisco 49ers are each 9-4, with the 8-5 Arizona Cardinals hot on their heels as the season winds down. The NFC Wild Card race is going to be a close one, but the Panthers have a couple key advantages, beginning with their defense. The Panthers rank 2nd in the NFL in total defense and 1st in scoring defense, and they are top 10 against both the run and pass. Their defense didn’t have its best showing yesterday, but it is a unit that is capable of playing with anybody.
The second reason the Panthers are Wild Card favorites is their turnover differential. The Panthers’ +10 turnover differential is 5th in the league, and turnovers are often the key factor in playoff games. Cam Newton has become much better at taking care of the football, and the defense is a very opportunistic one. That combination will give the Panthers extra possessions, which could be the difference between wins and losses.
The biggest reason the Panthers will make the playoffs, however, is their schedule. The Panthers have a favorable schedule, playing the New York Jets and Saints at home before ending the season at the Atlanta Falcons. The 49ers’ schedule isn’t too challenging, playing at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and home against the Falcons before closing the season away to the Cardinals. The Cardinals, however, must play at the Tennessee Titans and at the Seattle Seahawks before that Week 17 matchup with the 49ers.
Given the Cardinals’ difficult schedule and the fact that they and the 49ers must play each other, the Panthers are in prime position to make the playoffs. Even they lose to the Saints again (which I don’t believe they will) they should still easily finish 11-5. If they do, they will have clinched a playoff berth, as they hold the tiebreaker over the 49ers.
The loss to the Saints is surely a frustrating one for the Panthers and their fans, but they are still going to be a playoff team. This is the type of team that is built for playoff success, and they should be able to defeat either the NFC North or NFC East champion in a Wild Card game. Don’t write the Panthers off because of one loss, because this team is going to make some noise in the postseason.