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Where Did That Come From?

December 11, 2014

Carolina Panthers 41, New Orleans Saints 10. I still find it hard to believe.

Where has that been all year? What about all those other weeks (losses)? And now there is another question being asked. Are the Panthers actually back in the playoff chase?

This franchise has provided its fans a number of roller coaster rides over the years. Yet, I do not recall a more unexplainable and unlikely blowout victory. The Panthers (4-8-1) hadn’t won a game in over two months and were facing a team that blew them out in Charlotte on Halloween weekend.

The Saints had beaten Carolina by 18 points on October 30, one of six losses by 18 or more the Panthers have recorded in an often horrible campaign. And then Carolina played like it did last December en-route to a playoff berth.

Quarterback Cam Newton became relevant again, throwing for three touchdowns and running for another. The much-criticized Panthers offensive line suddenly looked like it had a clue. Newton was never sacked and didn’t throw an interception for the first time in nine games. There was room for RB Jonathan Stewart, who has been irrelevant for years now it seems, to accumulate 155 yards, 69 of them on a touchdown run that made it 31-3 and basically sealed the game a minute into the third quarter.

And what about the defense? It shut down New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees completely.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who expected a Carolina victory by 31 points. Even knowing the Saints (5-8) had lost three consecutive home games entering the game. But there it came. The worst loss New Orleans has suffered during the nine-year head coach Sean Payton-Brees era in the city.

Panthers Playoff Talk

Still can’t believe I am writing about Carolina Panthers playoff chances. Yes, Carolina is back in contention in the staggering NFC South. The Panthers could just make December interesting. It’s hard to know what to believe about this team anymore. But Panthers fans probably don’t care. After 63 days between wins, they are just happy to feel what success feels like.

As strange as it appears, Carolina remains firmly in the playoff race at 4-8-1 after thumping New Orleans 41-10 on Sunday. Here is what would need to happen for Carolina to make the playoffs for the second straight season—the easiest scenario for that to happen.

Carolina must win its last three games, at home against Tampa Bay and Cleveland and the finale on the road vs. Atlanta. But it’s conceivable. If the Panthers do that, they will finish 7-8-1.

New Orleans (5-8) has the easiest remaining schedule of the three teams in contention in the NFC South. The Saints will need to lose once more so as to finish no better than 7-9, against either Chicago, Atlanta or Tampa Bay.

Atlanta (5-8) also needs to lose a game. It could end up being the season finale vs. Carolina. Or it could be this week versus Pittsburgh. Or the following week against New Orleans.

I don’t think the Panthers can afford even one more loss, because that would make them 6-9-1 at best and either Atlanta or New Orleans will finish at least 7-9. But 7-8-1 could well do it for the Panthers in this strange year.

That would mean Carolina would host someone such as Detroit, Seattle, Dallas, Philadelphia or Arizona in the first round of the playoffs in early January.

Local Bowl Talk

Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and East Carolina all picked up college football bowl berths last weekend.

Duke will face Arizona State in the Sun Bowl, the Tar Heels will play Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl and the Wolfpack will take on Central Florida in the St. Petersburg Bowl. East Carolina, which fell out of the mix for a major bowl with an 8-4 finish, might have the best draw of all in-state teams with a matchup with Florida in the Birmingham Bowl.

I may as well broach the subject of Notre Dame, and its ability to jump into the ACC line and knock a conference member down the order. The Irish, at 7-5, will square off against LSU in the Music City Bowl.

Notre Dame’s an ACC member in all sports except football. Under its deal with the ACC, the Fighting Irish play an average of five ACC opponents per season and have access to the ACC’s bowls, and a share of the league’s bowl money after the College Football Playoff payouts.

N.C. State (7-5) ended up on the wrong end of the Notre Dame shift. The Wolfpack also lost ground when the ACC did not get a spot in the Citrus Bowl.

A year after a 3-9 finish, NC State’s primary concern was getting to any bowl and then finishing with eight wins, following up impressive wins against in-state foes UNC and Wake Forest. The St. Petersburg Bowl is set for Dec. 26 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Central Florida (9-3) is coming off of a 32-30 win at East Carolina last week.

The Tar Heels (6-6) will get a chance to finish the season with a winning record and a second straight bowl win under third-year coach Larry Fedora. The Quick Lane Bowl is a new game, played at Detroit’s Ford Field on Dec. 26. The Scarlett Knights went 7-5 in their first season in the Big Ten. The Heels will attempt to recover from a 35-7 home loss to the Wolfpack in the regular season finale.

Duke will be making a third straight bowl appearance. That has never occurred in school history. The Blue Devils have lost the past two, 52-48 to Texas A&M in the Peach Bowl last season and 48-34 to Cincinnati in the 2012 Belk Bowl, under coach David Cutcliffe. Arizona State (9-3) finished the regular season ranked No. 15 by the CFP committee.












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