The Chicago Bears proved to be that kind of quasi-friend you cannot trust on Monday night for the Carolina Panthers.
Will the Atlanta Falcons be any better for Carolina?
New Orleans trounced Chicago 31-15 Monday night to retake control of the NFC South at 6-8. Carolina is 5-8-1, still a half-game back after winning two straight and needing Drew Brees on his back more (see picture) rather than throwing for 375 yards and 3 TDs like he did Monday night. Atlanta is 5-9, but plays at New Orleans Sunday in a very key game for both clubs.
Of the three teams, only Carolina doesn't control its own destiny. The winner of the New Orleans-Atlanta game in the Big Easy Sunday only needs to win its final game on Dec.28 to capture the division. That's because Chicago did the Panthers no favors Monday night, as Jay Cutler looked absolutely awful and the Saints never trailed in a game that was never in doubt.
Because of that outcome, the Panthers need to simultaneously beat Cleveland at home and root for Atlanta on Sunday. Both games start at 1 p.m. If Atlanta and Carolina win, then the winner of the Panthers-Falcons Dec.28 game will win the division (Atlanta wins the tiebreaker vs. New Orleans if both teams finish tied at 7-9 due to what would then be a season sweep of the Saints).
But if New Orleans beats the Falcons, all the Saints have to do is win against lowly Tampa Bay (2-12) in the season finale to win the division at 8-8.
It's far from an ideal situation for the Panthers, who now have to pin their hopes not only on going 2-0 in their last two games but also on getting some help. But let's be honest -- the Panthers made their own bed and now must thrash around in it.
That bad home loss vs. Atlanta earlier in the year when Riverboat Ron turned into Reluctant Ron at the end? Getting two punts blocked to lose at Minnesota? Wasting a great defensive effort against Seattle? If Carolina had won just one of those games, the Panthers would have avoided this predicament. Here are my updated odds of winning the division:
NEW ORLEANS (6-8). 50 percent (up from 40 percent last week). The Saints looked very good Monday night and play Atlanta at home Sunday. I don't see the Saints losing at Tampa Bay Dec.28 -- although I believe the Bucs are actually playing better than woeful Chicago right now, so there would be a small chance. Still, the Saints are in the driver's seat. And if New Orleans wins Sunday AND Carolina loses, the Saints clinch the berth with one week still to go.
CAROLINA (5-8-1). 30 percent (down from 35 percent last week). The Panthers should beat Cleveland at home Sunday, but going to Atlanta and winning on Dec.28 is no sure thing. The Falcons are such an inconsistent team that to need two exact results from them to make the playoffs (a win and a loss, in that order) is tough to count on. Then again, Atlanta did beat New Orleans earlier in the season.
ATLANTA (5-9). 20 percent (down from 25 percent last week). Despite the Falcons' loss to Pittsburgh Sunday, they are far from out of it. Two straight wins and the Falcons take the division at 7-9 -- but they play at New Orleans and home vs. Carolina in those games. Atlanta is such an on-and-off team that this doesn't seem likely, but having the right to control your own destiny at 5-9 is a wonderful and bizarre thing if you are on the Georgia side of the I-85 rivalry.
Remember, there is also a consolation prize. If the Panthers don't win the division, they will pick about a dozen spots higher in the 2015 NFL draft.