The playoff picture is far from complete as a number of teams are still vying for playoff berths and seeding. While the Panthers have clinched a playoff berth, they could end up as high as the No. 1 seed and as low as the No. 6 seed, depending on what happens on Sunday.
As Ron Rivera's team prepares for the Falcons and ultimately the postseason, Panthers 101 takes a look at potential playoff matchups and ranks them in terms of difficulty. Here they are, ordered from the toughest to the most favorable:
1. New Orleans Saints
Despite the magical 17-13 victory at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, it's still clear that the Saints are a bad matchup for the Panthers. In the two contests against New Orleans this season, Carolina has averaged just 15 points per game while giving up a a total of nine sacks. In fact, Rob Ryan's defense has accounted for nearly one quarter of the sacks surrendered by the Panthers this season. As great as the defense was last week, Ron Rivera's team can’t expect to beat the Saints in the playoffs scoring less than 20 points.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles are one of the most difficult matchups for not only the Panthers, but anyone in the NFC. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles should be regarded as a serious MVP candidate. With 25 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, Foles boasts the NFL's highest QBR heading into Week 17. More importantly, Philadelphia is 8-1 with Foles under center, averaging over 34 points per contest.
The Eagles defense has also improved, and could present a problem for the Panthers if they fall behind early. In order to beat Chip Kelly's team, the Carolina offense must keep Foles and the explosive Philly offense on the sidelines by controlling the ball and sustaining long touchdown drives.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The Panthers and 49ers are mirror images of one another in this regard. Both have:
- Head coaches that played for the Super Bowl champion 1985 Chicago Bears
- Young, talented read-option quarterbacks
- Veteran Pro Bowl running backs
- Veteran battle-tested receivers in the twilight of their careers
- Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends in their primes of their careers
- One of the NFL's elite defensive fronts
Carolina got the best of San Francisco in a 10-9 defensive struggle at Candlestick earlier this season. If the two teams happen to square off again in the playoffs, I would expect another tightly contested game — and tightly contested games can go either way.
4. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals defense muzzled the Panthers offense in Week 4, holding Cam Newton and co. to just six points in a 22-6 defeat. The defense afforded the offense plenty of opportunities by registering three takeaways against turnover-happy Carson Palmer, but the offense could not cash in.
The much-improved Cardinals offense has also become more consistent as Bruce Arian's team continues to win football games down the stretch. Since both defenses have been excellent this season pressuring the quarterback, this matchup — although unlikely to happen — would surely boil down to which signal caller makes more mistakes.
5. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks and Panthers have met twice in the last two seasons — both ending in heartbreaking fourth-quarter defeats for the latter. A rematch in the playoffs would feature a different Carolina team that's not only learned how to win close games, but also hungry for revenge.
The Panthers have won 10 of their last 11 games while the Seahawks have gone cold, dropping two of their last three. In those two losses against Arizona and San Francisco, Russell Wilson struggled mightily while the Seattle running game was kept in check by two stout defenses. It's hard to see Pete Carroll's team, who scored just 12 points against the Panthers in the season opener, lighting up the scoreboard against a stingy Carolina defense. With that being said, the Panthers offense should have plenty of opportunities to win a potential playoff game against Seattle.
Watch the highlights from the Week 1 meeting below:
6. Green Bay Packers
The Packers are 5-2 with Aaron Rodgers and just 2-5-1 without him. There’s no underestimating the impact of Rodgers, who's missed the last seven games with a broken collarbone, on the team's success. If the Packers defeat the Bears next week in Chicago, they'll win the NFC North and gain some momentum heading into the playoffs. More importantly, Rodgers will have another week to recover.
One thing Rodgers' return won't cure — a struggling defense. The Panthers should be able to take advantage of a subpar Green Bay defense missing its best player, Clay Matthews. On the other side of the ball, Sean McDermott's defense should be able to put enough pressure on Rodgers to make things difficult for him in the passing game.
7. Chicago Bears
The Bears have two premier receivers, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, who present a very difficult matchup for the young Panthers defensive backs. The Dolphins' Mike Wallace and Buccaneers' Vincent Jackson were able to get behind the Carolina secondary for big plays in recent weeks. Chicago would look to exploit that mismatch, provided Jay Cutler gets enough time to throw.
However, Cutler is prone to making key mistakes, especially when pressured, while the Panthers defense has been great this season at forcing turnovers. More importantly, Carolina would salivate at the matchup against a Bears defense which, uncharacteristically, is the NFL's worst against the run.
The Panthers should win by at least 10 points in this potential matchup.
8. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have limped their way toward a potential playoff berth on the ailing back of Tony Romo. The Dallas defense, however, is an abomination. They are surrendering over 27 points per game this season, and rank in the bottom 10 against both the pass and the run. Like virtually every other opponent Jason Garrett's team has faced, the Panthers should have no problem scoring points against this group. The Carolina defense should be able to hold their own in this matchup, especially if backup Kyle Orton is forced into emergency duty.
The Panthers should take care of the Cowboys in blowout fashion if given the opportunity to do so.
- NFC Playoff Picture 2013: Carolina Panthers Scenarios for Week 17
- Carolina Panthers Clinch Playoff Berth, Seize Division Lead with Clutch Win Over New Orleans Saints
- Carolina Panthers Defense Shines in Statement Win Over San Francisco 49ers
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