I was talking to cornerback Josh Norman after Carolina's 41-10 thumping of New Orleans Sunday about the weird NFC South division race. Said Norman (at right): "Somebody is trying to give us a gift! All we have to do is take it!"
In the season of giving, this does seem true. Somehow, at 4-8-1, the Panthers find themselves only a half-game back in the chase to host an NFC South playoff game. Let's take a closer look at the three remaining contenders.
I have affixed my own personal odds to each team as to how likely they are to win the division. Teams are listed in current order of NFC South standings.
1) ATLANTA (5-8). 25 percent chance of winning division.
Future schedule: Pittsburgh (8-5), at New Orleans (5-8), Carolina (4-8-1).
Comment: The Falcons hold the tiebreaker edge by virtue of a 4-0 record against NFC South opponents and are technically in first place right now. However, they have the toughest schedule remaining, which is why I think they are the least likely of the three teams to win the division. Atlanta's offense is rounding into form -- witness the 30 second-half points scored on Green Bay Monday night -- but its defense can be torched (which is why the Falcons still lost 43-37 Monday night). I think the Falcons will go to 5-9 vs. Pittsburgh Sunday, losing control of the division.
2) NEW ORLEANS (5-8). 40 percent chance of winning division.
Future schedule: at Chicago (5-8), Atlanta (5-8), at Tampa Bay (2-11).
Comment: Despite that startling 31-point blowout Carolina just put on the Saints, the Saints control their own destiny and have the easiest schedule remaining of the three teams. Panther fans should cheer hard for the Bears (minus star receiver Brandon Marshall, who's out for the year) to beat New Orleans at Soldier Field Monday night. The Atlanta-New Orleans loser on Dec.21st will likely fall out of the race. In my way of thinking, it would be better for the Falcons to win that one for Carolina's purposes.
3) CAROLINA (4-8-1). 35 percent chance of winning division.
Future schedule: Tampa Bay (2-11), Cleveland (7-6), at Atlanta (5-8).
Comment: I think the Panthers will need to win all three of their remaining games to get in -- 6-9-1 is not going to do it, because either Atlanta or New Orleans will undoubtedly finish 7-9. Despite one of the most complete performances in Panther history Sunday, you have to wonder if the on-and-off Panthers are capable of keeping the accelerator pressed all month. With this team, even woeful Tampa Bay is not a sure win on Sunday.
But if Carolina can go 3-0, they can take care of knocking out Atlanta all by themselves on the final day of the season at the Georgia Dome. What they have to hope for is that the Saints don't also go 3-0, because that's the part of this the Panthers can't control. The Saints are public enemy No.1 for the next two weeks for Carolina fans.
Still, it all looks a lot better for Panther fans than it did just a few days ago. I would have put their chances at winning the division at about five percent on Sunday morning. Then came the rout against New Orleans, and suddenly it was time to recalibrate everything.
To look a bit ahead: The winner of the NFC South will be the No.4 seed in the NFC playoffs on Jan.3 or Jan.4. That much is certain. That team will then host a playoff game against the top wild-card team, which will likely be either Dallas, Philadelphia, Seattle, Arizona or Detroit. Whatever team it is will have won 3-5 more games than the NFC South winner, but we all know that doesn't matter once you get into the playoffs.
What is certain, though, is that if the Panthers do win the NFC South, they will drop from a first-round draft pick that would likely be in the Top 10 to the No.21 pick at best in the 2015 NFL draft. It's a whole lot better to get a top offensive tackle in the top 10, so Panther fans should be careful what they wish for -- or at least gracefully accept the consolation prize of an early pick if Carolina doesn't go 3-0.