It's still a long shot, but the Panthers could end up as No.1 playoff seed in the NFC for the first time in team history.
Here's how it would have to work. Three things must still happen (it used to be four, but San Francisco did the first by beating Atlanta Monday night):
1. Carolina must beat Atlanta at 1 p.m. Sunday.
2. San Francisco must beat surging Arizona on the road Sunday at 4:25 p.m.
3. St. Louis must beat Seattle on the road Sunday at 4:25 p.m.
The least likely of these things to happen would have to be No.3, given the Seahawks aren't likely to lose two straight at home. But St. Louis already did Carolina one favor -- beating New Orleans a couple of weeks ago -- and might again, you never know.
The Panthers can only control their own game, which will be played before Nos.2 and 3. Beating Atlanta assures a first-round bye and a home game on either Jan.11 or 12. That would be only the fourth playoff game the city of Charlotte has ever hosted (the Panthers have beaten Dallas twice -- following the 1996 and 2003 seasons -- and got clobbered by Arizona in the most recent one, in 2008 when Jake Delhomme had six turnovers).
There's still a way the Panthers and their superb defense (above, that's Greg Hardy putting Drew Brees on his back from Sunday's 17-13 win) could host two playoff games even if they end up as No.2 seed. Let's assume Seattle is No.1.
If the Seahawks are upset the weekend of Jan.11 and 12 by a to-be-determined opponent and Carolina wins that same weekend -- both teams would be coming off a bye in that scenario -- then the Panthers would get to host the NFC championship game for the first time in team history because of their higher seeding.
But a loss to Atlanta would likely push the Panthers to a No.5 seed, because I just don't see New Orleans losing at home to Tampa Bay Sunday. And in that scenario, there would be no home playoff games -- unless the No.6 seed and the No.5 seed both pulled two straight upsets -- and a much tougher, literal road for Carolina.
So beating Atlanta on the road is essential -- and cannot be taken for granted. If the Panthers do not do that, the team will likely be a No.5 or 6 seed and on the road at Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago or Green Bay the weekend of Jan.4-5.