NFL Atlanta FalconsCarolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers: NFC South Not Theirs Yet, Must Be Careful in Week 17

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

What a season it has been for the Carolina Panthers. This was the year that Cam Newton was supposed to “grow up” and finally lead a more-than-capable team to postseason glory. Well, after a 1-3 start, things did not look all that promising. However, now with a record of 11-4, the Panthers are in charge of their division and very well could enter the playoffs as NFC South champions.

To do that, though, they must beat a divisional foe in the Atlanta Falcons. I know, looking at the Falcons’ season and making this one sound like a true test is next to impossible. But, in the Falcons’ most recent game, they showed the one thing all non-playoff teams are capable of showing at this point: A desire to spoil a season.

Last week, against the San Francisco 49ers, the Falcons were extremely close to shocking the football world as they nearly completed a fourth quarter comeback. Having scored two touchdowns and recovered an onside kick, driving down for what would have put them up on the Niners, the Falcons watched NaVorro Bowman take back an interception 89 yards for a game-sealing score.

But, the fourth quarter battle should be a warning to Carolina that this Falcons team is not ready to fold completely. These guys still have a job to do. They still have to earn their paycheck day in and day out. The Falcons will come to play on Sunday, possibly more motivated than they have been in the last month or two. They have an opportunity to take the division away from the Panthers and allow New Orleans to climb back up with a win of their own to steal it right back.

The bottom line is, Carolina has to come ready to play. Coming out flat would be the worst-case scenario for the Panthers, as they must ride some momentum into postseason play. The last thing Carolina wants to do is go into the postseason having lost a game to a 4-win team the week previous.

Ryan Heckman is a Senior Writer for RantSports.comFollow him on Twitter  @ryanmheckman, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.