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.
It is always better to win ugly than to lose pretty, and the Panthers managed to keep alive their playoff hopes with a just-enough sort of win against Tampa Bay, 19-17, Sunday.
Carolina spent most of the game in Tampa Bay territory. But backup quarterback Derek Anderson only got Carolina into the end zone once, meaning that Graham Gano's four field goals and the Panthers' defense ultimately made the difference in this one.
That Panther D had the game's biggest play, sacking Bucs quarterback Josh McCown at his own 4 in the third quarter with Carolina trailing, 10-9. That led to the Panthers' only touchdown -- a slant from Anderson to Jerricho Cotchery.
McCown was mostly terrible, throwing the ball too late or too early on numerous occasions under a serious pass rush. Panther defensive end Charles Johnson is the team's highest-paid player and earned his money Sunday, constantly getting into the Bucs backfield. But McCown made one huge play with a 16-yard TD run that brought Tampa Bay to within 19-17 with 3:11 left.
Carolina missed Cam Newton for sure, but Anderson did enough to win (his one interception was negated by a very fortunate roughing-the-passer call). He also utilized tight end Greg Olsen beautifully. Needing to kill the clock on the final drive, the Panthers almost blew it with Jonathan Stewart's second fumble of the game, although this time Stewart recovered it. And Anderson then threw two nice passes to Kelvin Benjamin for first downs that meant Tampa Bay ultimately only got the ball back at its own 10 with no timeouts and 0:23 left on the clock. Luke Kuechly's interception sealed it two plays later.
As for Carolina's playoff chances: Atlanta (5-9) did its part, losing to Pittsburgh, 27-20. If New Orleans (still 5-8) loses to Chicago Monday night, the Panthers (5-8-1) will become the unlikely leaders of the NFC South and need only to win their last two games (against Cleveland and Atlanta) to secure a playoff spot for the second straight year. Cleveland also lost badly Sunday, 30-0 to Cincinnati, in rookie Johnny Manziel's awful first start. It will be interesting to see whether that experiment only lasts for a week.
So how long should Carolina quarterback Cam Newton sit out?
I think the answer is pretty obvious.
If Carolina beats Tampa Bay, I expect Newton to start against Cleveland at home on Dec.21. We have repeatedly been told that Newton's back injury from Tuesday's "somebody's supposed to be dead" car crash is not something that's going to get worse by playing. If he can tolerate the pain, he can play the game.
Newton -- who has already been declared out for the Tampa game -- can certainly tolerate pain.
"He's got all kinds of bumps and bruises and has never said a word to anyone about anything," said quarterback Derek Anderson, and Anderson was referring to all the injuries Newton had before his truck flipped Tuesday.
If the Panthers lose Sunday, they will drop to 4-9-1. Although that wouldn't technically eliminate Carolina from playoff contention, realistically I think that would be it for the team's playoff hopes.
Atlanta and New Orleans (both 5-8 entering Sunday) would each have to go 1-2 in the final three games for Carolina to catch both of them at that point.
So if the Panthers lose to Tampa Bay, I would start Anderson (shown in the above picture celebrating with Greg Olsen after a TD vs. the Bucs in September) at least against Cleveland and likely at Atlanta, too, on Dec.28 to close out the season. Newton is too valuable a commodity to risk in meaningless games.
On the flip side, if Carolina wins Sunday, I would think Newton should and will play against Cleveland. That would be fun, wouldn't it? Newton vs. Johnny Manziel? The question would be which defensive lineman mimicked which quarterback's signature gesture first after a sack.
-- Watch for Carolina to try to play a fair amount of press coverage on Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. Like Kelvin Benjamin, Evans is a big rookie target that the Panthers believe should not get a free release off the line often.
"We just have to be physical with him," Panther safety Thomas DeCoud said. "Bigger-bodied guys may not change direction as well, especially off the press. We have to get our hands on those guys and be tight in coverage."
-- In the Panthers' first game against Tampa Bay, running back Jonathan Stewart rushed nine times for only 20 yards. But he's playing at a high level right now, and I wouldn't be surprised if Stewart had a second straight 100-yard game Sunday.
-- Prediction time. I never saw Carolina's 41-10 win over New Orleans coming, and if you did, please proceed directly to Vegas. That miss dropped my record to 7-5-1 predicting the Panthers on the season. Anderson is going to do enough Sunday to beat the Bucs a second time this year. My pick: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 13.
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.
The Carolina Panthers shellacked the New Orleans Saints 41-10 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday, winning so convincingly it was hard to believe they hadn't won for two months. It was one of the most astounding and inexplicable games I have ever covered in 20 years following the Panthers, who entered the game 3-8-1 and on a six-game, 63-day losing streak. It also means Carolina will be only a half-game back in the NFC South -- trailing New Orleans and Atlanta -- IF Atlanta loses to Green Bay Monday night.
So let's try to explain it. Here are the top 5 reasons the Panthers won big:
1. Quarterback Cam Newton played unbelievably well. Newton had one of those games that makes you remember why he can be so spectacular, throwing for three TDs and running for another while committing zero turnovers. Look at him in the picture above -- literally laughing at the Saints defense as he runs for another first down (photo by Observer's Jeff Siner). Newton toyed with the Saints' defense, which had held him to a career-low 10 completions on Oct.30th in the Saints' 28-10 win in Charlotte. Just when I wondered if the "Cam 2013" model was still available in Sunday's newspaper, here he came.
2. Defensive secondary. The release of Antoine Cason seemed to be an addition by subtraction, as the extremely young Panther secondary played great football against Drew Brees. And linebacker Thomas Davis was everywhere. It also helped that Brees' receivers had to have dropped a half-dozen passes -- tight end Jimmy Graham in particular was terrible.
3. The fight. Never underestimate a big scuffle in terms of what can do -- either positively or negatively -- for a team. In this case, the fight after Newton scored on a one-yard dive and tried to do his "Superman" thing seemed to energize the Panthers.
4. No monster mistakes. There was nothing for Carolina like the two blocked punts that ruined last week. Instead, the Panther defense was the one causing the turnovers (the Saints lost the ball twice in their first three plays). Much of this was due to offensive line play, which gave Newton all sorts of time as he didn't throw an interception for the first time in nine games.
5. Game-planning. Give the coaches some credit on this one, too. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula repeatedly threw the ball on second-and-1 and third-and-1 and ran Newton on all sorts of designed runs. The defensive game plan was just as -- if not more -- solid. And the special teams, while allowing a couple of 30- and 32-yard punt returns, had no huge errors. By the time Jonathan Stewart sprinted 69 yards for a TD on the Panthers' first play of the second half, amazingly enough, the game was all but over.
When you explain football to a child, one of the first words you use is "touchdown."
It is one of football's basics, those six points you get when you reach the end zone. And when you put the Panthers' 3-8-1 season in simplest terms, they just haven't been getting there often enough in 2014 (the picture to the right is just one example why, showing Kelvin Benjamin dropping what would have been a TD pass against Seattle).
Remember the last time Carolina played New Orleans on Oct.30th? The Saints led 14-0 at halftime. The Panthers' defense forced two early turnovers, and the Panthers' offense converted those turnovers into... well... punts.
The Panthers' offense wasn't great last season, either, but that fact was often hidden by the NFL's No.2 defense and a few fantastic fourth-quarter drives that produced points at exactly the right time. That team scored 42 touchdowns in 16 games.
This team has only 24 through 12 games, which places it in front of only the New York Jets, Oakland and Jacksonville in terms of TDs scored this season. That's company you do not want to keep in today's NFL. Even 2-10 Tampa Bay and 2-10 Tennessee have scored one more TD apiece than Carolina has this season.
This is not a historic low for Carolina. The record for fewest TDs ever by a Panther team came in 2010, when Jimmy Clausen and company sputtered to only 17 total TDs in 16 games. That team sometimes looked like it couldn't have scored if the other team had forgotten to put a defense on the field at all.
But this one has not been much better. From the regression of quarterback Cam Newton to the purge of receivers to the overpaid running backs to the uninspired playcalling to the unstable and overmatched offensive line, this has been an incredibly forgettable offense to watch.
-- Could the Panthers' offense have a last gasp Sunday? There's a chance. New Orleans is 31st in the NFL in yards allowed. But the Saints still whipped Carolina 28-10 in Charlotte not long ago and made Newton endure one of his worst days ever in the NFL (10 for 28, 151 yards, 1 interception and a 39.4 QB rating).
-- Of the Panthers' primary rivals, no team has historically been a better match than New Orleans. Check this out. The teams have played 39 times, with Carolina holding a 20-19 edge. If you combine all the points from all the games, the difference is one touchdown -- New Orleans leads, 817-810.
-- Prediction time. I am 7-4-1 picking the Panthers' outcome this season after correctly selecting Minnesota to beat Carolina last week. This one may be close for a half, but not much longer than that. My pick: New Orleans 34, Carolina 17.
You know it's going to be cold, since this game will be played outside on the last day of November in Minnesota.
You know it's going to be difficult, since this Minnesota team only lost to Green Bay by three points a week ago and Carolina lost to that same Packer team by 21 this season.
But this game must be won if the Panthers want to be relevant in December. The Panthers keep getting presented one opportunity after another by their lame NFC South brethren -- at 3-7-1, Carolina is still only a half-game back of the division lead.
Somehow, although the Panthers should be out of it, they are not yet out of it. Minnesota, like the Panthers, is not a very good team. But it's plenty good enough to beat the Panthers, even without Adrian Peterson. The Panthers have to force rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater into some mistakes on defense -- I think that's the biggest key.
-- The Panthers and Vikings both have a Charles Johnson. You know the one from Carolina -- the defensive end who has been a mainstay for years. The one from Minnesota, however, will also be a factor. That Charles Johnson had 87 yards worth of pass receptions against Chicago two weeks ago and scored his first career TD last week against Green Bay.
-- There will be a lot of attention on Panther center Ryan Kalil and his younger brother, left tackle Matt Kalil, before and during this game on TV. Matt Kalil had one of his worst days as a pro against Green Bay, getting called for three critical penalties, then skipping out on interviews with reporters after the game and knocking a heckler's hat off the guy's head as Kalil walked to his car after that game. Video of that incident soon surfaced, leaving the younger Kalil apologizing for more than just his play.
-- Division envy: The Vikings would love to be in the NFC South this season. Minnesota's 4-7 record places it last in the NFC North. It would tie for first in the NFC South.
-- Prediction time: My record is 6-4-1 predicting Carolina's outcome, which is not a whole lot better than the Panthers' record. Carolina whipped the Vikings by 25 points a year ago. But that was then and this is now -- the Panthers are mired in a five-game losing streak and aren't built for weather this extreme. My pick: Minnesota 20, Carolina 16.