ATLANTA -- Following a December they will always remember, the Carolina Panthers jumped into the NFL playoffs on the last day of the 2014 regular season Sunday with a 34-3 pounding of the Atlanta Falcons.
Carolina will host Arizona in a first-round NFC playoff game Saturday at 4:35 p.m. on ESPN. Single-game playoff tickets went on sale at 8 p.m. Sunday -- only about 30 minutes after the game ended -- and were almost immediately sold out except for single seats. (There are plenty of tickets available on Stubhub.com and other resale sites, but generally at about twice face value). The Panthers get to host the game, despite their 7-8-1 overall record, by virtue of Carolina winning the NFC South on the season's final day.
If the Panthers can beat Arizona, they will play either at Seattle on Sat., Jan.10th at 8:15 p.m. or at Green Bay on Sun., Jan.11th at 1:05 p.m. The opponent would depend on the result of the Dallas-Detroit game on Jan.4th. If Dallas wins that one, the Panthers would go to Seattle. If Detroit wins, the Panthers would go to Green Bay.
That Carolina is even in a position to contemplate such things is remarkable. When the month began, the Panthers were 3-8-1 and in the throes of a six-game losing streak. But they won their last four games in a row and have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in team history.
It was a startling turnaround, one in which two close home games were sandwiched by two whopping road victories. The run started when Carolina pulverized New Orleans in the Superdome, 41-10, on Dec.7. Then it concluded with this "win-and-you're-in" game at Atlanta.
As in the New Orleans game, Carolina played so well in the first half that the game was basically decided after 30 minutes. In both cases, Carolina led 24-3 at halftime and the home team was booed off the field.
In this game, much of Carolina's best work was fueled by its defense. Roman Harper had a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown that pushed a 10-3 Carolina second-quarter lead to 17-3, and Thomas Davis's 33-yard fumble return set up another TD only minutes later.
Then came Tre Boston's 84-yard interception return in the third quarter, which made it 34-3 and sent a lot of Falcons fans out of the Georgia Dome before the fourth quarter even began. It was the first time in their 20-year history that the Panthers have had two defensive scores in the same game. With all that, Cam Newton's one touchdown passing and one TD running seemed to be almost lost in the wash, but Newton also played very well just when he needed to -- as did Carolina's offensive line. By the end, Newton was inciting the 5,000 or so fans remained -- most of them chanting "Let's Go Panthers!" -- to get even louder. It was a remarkable Sunday.
Now comes the even harder part: winning a home playoff game.
The Panthers have whiffed on their last two tries, losing by 20 to Arizona following the 2008 season (that was Jake Delhomme's six-turnover game) and by 13 last year to San Francisco (when goal-line offense and silly penalties undid the Panthers).
This time Arizona would seem to be the ideal opponent, given that any team the Panthers faced would have at least 11 wins. The Cardinals will be playing a backup quarterback and have struggled offensively in recent weeks -- at one time sporting the NFC's top record, they will go into the playoffs as a No.5 seed.
Carolina, meanwhile, is a No.4 seed and somehow still alive after this wild December, which also included Cam Newton's car crash and close home wins against Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
Only 12 teams are left out of 32 as the playoffs begin. Quite remarkably, Carolina is one of them. But after this December, it would not be wise to count these Panthers out against anyone.