The NFC South continues to be a source of amazement, as the Carolina Panthers somehow, someway, find themselves leading the division after being dead and buried less than three weeks ago. The New Orleans Saints are out of the playoff picture, the Atlanta Falcons are still alive, and play the division leaders on the final week of the season.
The Panthers beat the Cleveland Browns 17-13, enjoying the quarterback drama and festival they’re going through. Cam Newton, back from being bruised and beaten in a car accident, ran for a touchdown and threw for another, as the Panthers continue their ways from last season: Playing ugly, but at least they’re winning.
From October 12, the Panthers failed to win seven games in a row. It began with a tie against the Bengals and carried on with six consecutive losses. Teams that fall apart that way in the middle of the season shouldn’t be anywhere near a playoff spot. Not in late December. But the New Orleans Saints kept losing at home which left a window open for the Falcons, a team that has won all of its division games this season, including a double over the Saints which rarely happens. The Falcons had a five game losing streak earlier this season and managed to bounce back.
What does it say about the NFL playoff system if a team with a 7-9 or 7-8-1 record will be able to make its way in? That’s life. It doesn’t usually happen, and it’s not necessarily bad for football. As in with most sports with a playoff system deciding its champion, it’s not about who was best during the entire season, but about who gets hot and catches fire at the right time.
It’s hard to say the Panthers are actually on fire except for that shocking 41-10 win in New Orleans; since then they’ve scored a total of 36 points. But they’re playing well enough to position themselves one win or even a tie from making it into the playoffs a second straight year. They might not be doing it the pretty way or even the right way, but in the NFL, the bottom line is what matters, and making it into the playoffs keeps Ron Rivera looking very good at his job.
The same thing can’t be said about Mike Smith. Even if the Falcons make the playoffs, which means they beat the Panthers on the last game of the season (in Atlanta), he’ll probably be fired.