The Panthers next game is crucial

John FoxThe Carolina Panthers better come up with a win next week against the New Orleans Saints or make no mistake, they’re in trouble come the postseason.

The Panthers are currently 11-4 on the season, but all four of their losses have come on the road. Granted, they do have impressive road wins against San Diego and Green Bay, but they needed late rallies in each game to come away victorious. It was easy to fall in love with Panthers when they thumped Tampa Bay and Denver the past two weeks, but each of those victories came at home and against teams that are fading fast.

Carolina lost the chance to play at home throughout the playoffs when they choked away a victory in New York Sunday night. The Giants came from behind multiple times in the second have to edge the Panthers 34-28 in overtime. The win allowed the G-Men to clinch the No. 1 seed and while the Panthers control their own destiny for the No. 2 seed, they left the door open for the Falcons to sneak through the backdoor.

With their 24-17 win over Minnesota, the Falcons just need a win over the Rams at home next week and a Panther loss in New Orleans to win the NFC South. Amazingly, Atlanta could go from out of the playoffs entering Week 16, to clinching the No. 2 seed at the end of the regular season.

But back to the Panthers – they need to win next week against the Saints. With their running game and the threat of Steve Smith taking it to the house every time he touches the ball, they’re every bit of a Super Bowl contender. But not if they have to go on the road to do so. NFC South teams are 0-11 on the road this year against other NFC South opponents and with Drew Brees going for Dan Mario’s record for most passing yards in a season, the Saints aren’t going to just hand Carolina a victory.

So essentially, a trip to the NFC Championship Game might be on the line this week for the Panthers in New Orleans.

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Are the Carolina Panthers the most dangerous team in the NFC?

Carolina PanthersAnybody catch the Panthers’ 38-23 win over the Buccaneers on Monday night? If you didn’t, you missed ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew waxing poetically about how Carolina could wind up being the No. 1 seed in the NFC. (Seriously, I know it’s their job to create storylines but I thought the trio of Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski were going to fall out of the booth trying to make love to the Panthers.)

Carolina’s win over NFC South Division rival Tampa Bay was impressive. They ran the ball extremely well (like, 299 yards well) against one of the best defenses in the NFC, Steve Smith made big plays and for the most part, the defense was solid.

But before we even remotely toy with the idea that the Panthers will leapfrog the New York Giants in the NFC, maybe we should slow down and take dose of reality.

Yes, the Panthers’ win over the Bucs to capture first place in the NFC South was imposing and dare I say, dominant. But NFC South teams are now 0-10 on the road against other NFC South teams, so while Carolina’s victory was a nice statement, it wasn’t necessarily shock.

Tampa has often struggled on the road throughout this season. If it weren’t for double-digit come from behind wins against Kansas City and Detroit, the Bucs would be 7-6 right now. They’re currently allowing close to 24 points a game on the road this year, compared to just 12.6 at home. For as good as Monte Kiffin’s defense has looked this season, it’s simply been a different unit on the road than it has been at home.

But let’s get back to Carolina. The Panthers are currently atop the exciting NFC South at 10-3 and are home against the Broncos this Sunday, then at the Giants and at the Saints to end the year. Those are three winnable games, but a daunting final stretch to say the least. Assuming they can beat the Broncos this week (which won’t be easy coming off a short week and with Denver trying to clinch the AFC West), does anyone see this team beating both the Giants and Saints on the road? New Orleans might be knocked out of the playoff race by then, but they would certainly love the opportunity to play spoiler against a division rival.

The Panthers are definitely a playoff team and one that could make noise when the postseason starts. They have a veteran quarterback, an unbelievable playmaker in Smith and a running game that could shred any opponent. But let’s relax a little on the idea of them earning home field advantage throughout the postseason. The Giants are still the best team in the NFC (if not in the league) and the Bucs and Falcons still have a shot to upend Carolina in the division. And teams can look vastly different from game to game in the NFL.

Saints find offensive balance, keep postseason hopes alive

Reggie BushNew Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton was rightfully criticized throughout the week for not maintaining enough offensive balance this season. While the Saints statistically rank as the best offense in the league, they entered Sunday’s game against the Falcons as a 6-6 team with slim playoff hopes. No offense – not even the best in the league – can win consistently if they can’t run the ball. But the Saints rushed for 184 yards and beat division rival Atlanta 29-25 on Sunday.

Their running game was essentially the key because it opened everything up for Drew Brees and the passing game. Outside of the opening drive of the first quarter and most of the third, the Falcons’ defense looked befuddled at what Payton was throwing at them. They had no answer for New Orleans’ offense and allowed Pierre Thomas to rumble for 102 yards on just 16 carries. If Payton can keep himself from going Andy Reid on everybody, the Saints are going to be tough to beat the rest of the way.

For the Falcons, their loss cannot be placed on rookie Matt Ryan (24 of 33 for 315 yards, 1 TD) and the offense. Ryan was unbelievable and got a ton of help from Roddy White (10 catches, 164 yards) and Michael Jenkins (5 catches, 69 yards), who made the rookie quarterback look good on a couple of errant passes. Outside of a rookie mistake on an interception thrown in the first quarter, Ryan was damn near perfect and constantly kept drives alive with pinpoint passes.

The Falcons really put themselves in a hole with this loss, however. At 8-5, they’re still very much alive in the playoff race, but they host a tough Buccaneers team next week and then travel to Minnesota before finishing with the hapless Rams. They’ll have to win at least two of their next three games to make the playoffs, so a win over the Saints could have gone a long way.

We’ll see what Ryan and the young Falcons are made of over these next three weeks.

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