Panthers 1 win from ending playoff drought

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers can clinch their first

playoff appearance since 2008 by winning either of their final two

games.

But the Panthers also know the benefit of winning both.

If Carolina (10-4) can beat New Orleans at home Sunday and

Atlanta on the road the following week, the Panthers would win the

NFC South and secure the No. 2 seed, which means a first-round bye

and at least one playoff game at home.

Carolina is 6-1 at home.

For now, the team’s focus is on the Saints and snapping the

five-year playoff drought.

”We’re looking at it as, `Why not us,”’ Newton says. ”… If

we do what we have to do, if we win this game, we have our

confirmation of being in the playoffs.”

Even if the Panthers lose Sunday, they can still qualify for the

playoffs as a wild card by beating Atlanta in Week 17.

However, that would likely mean having to win three road games

to reach the Super Bowl as the fifth or sixth seed.

That’s been done before, but certainly not the path of least

resistance, particularly with how difficult it is to play at

Seattle and New Orleans. The Seahawks are 6-0 at home; the Saints

7-0.

”I really do believe they understand (the magnitude),”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of his players.

”One of the things I told them, we’ve gone through it every

week. In our situation and circumstances, with San Francisco the

way they are, with Arizona the way they are, and with the situation

with the Saints, every game has been important.”

Said Newton: ”Guys are going to be hungry to play this

game.”

Rivera said it gives him heartburn to think the Panthers have

won 10 games and still could wind up sitting at home for the

playoffs if they stumble and lose their final two games.

That’s because the NFC is so top heavy.

Seattle (12-2) has already clinched a playoff spot, while fellow

NFC West foes San Francisco (10-4) and Arizona (9-5) could still

move ahead of Carolina in the playoff hunt.

”Every game is important and that’s the way you have to

approach it,” Rivera said. ”We could have lost any of the games

we’ve played and been in dire straits, and we haven’t. I really do

think they understand.”

The Panthers say that their focus is where it has always been –

on the next opponent – and not on the prize at the end of the

line.

Rivera’s mantra all season has been the next opponent is the

biggest game because it’s the next game.

”As it stands right now, we’re not in the playoffs,”

linebacker Thomas Davis said. ”As a team we understand that, and

we know that we control our own destiny. That’s the good part about

it. We’re not sitting back like some of these other teams waiting

on somebody else to lose and waiting on this happen.

”We know if we go out and take care of business as a team and

we get done what we’re supposed to get done then none of that

matters.”

On the other sideline, the Saints’ playoff scenario is much

simpler.

If they beat the Panthers on Sunday, they clinch the NFC South

and can do no worse than the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Should

they lose Sunday, they could also secure a playoff spot if the

Cardinals lose to Seattle.

”We understand the importance of it,” Saints quarterback Drew

Brees said. ”Obviously your number one goal every year is to win

your division, first and foremost, and we have the opportunity to

do that this weekend.

”It’s going to take a great team effort and it’s going to take

our best performance in order to get it done. That and then

obviously the two seed that comes along with that is

significant.

”You’re guaranteed at least one home game and that’s always

what you strive for is just to be able to have that home-field

advantage.”

AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org