The possibilities are particularly relevant now, at a time when two-thirds of NFL teams (21 of 32) are either sitting in a playoff position or are within one game of it. And even as the NFL seems destined to expand the postseason field, perhaps as early as next year, the NFC South is vying to send a sub.-500 team to the playoffs. It's not too difficult, in fact, to find scenarios where someone clinches the NFC South with just five wins.
That's right. If everything goes their way -- and with six weeks remaining, there are so many variables -- the Bucs could win the division at 6-10. The Panthers could win it with as few as five victories, as could the Falcons. It appears the Saints would need at least six victories to win the title, based on tiebreakers. (Note: I didn’t consider future ties in generating these scenarios.)
The NFC South debacle conjures bad memories of the 2010 NFC West race, the only other instance since 1967 when a division leader has been two games under .500 this late in the season, per the Elias Sports Bureau. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks overcame the St. Louis Rams in Week 17 to win the NFC West at 7-9.
What would you think if the 5-11 Falcons hosted an 11-5 Philadelphia Eagles team on wild-card weekend, while a 10-6 San Francisco 49ers team stayed home? That could happen, according to the Playoff Machine.
How would you react if the 11-5 49ers had to make a cross-country trip to face the 5-10-1 Panthers, with the 10-6 Eagles home for the holidays? That could happen as well.
Expanding the playoffs a year after a sub-.500 team wins its division might be a bad look, but as we discussed in the spring, it appears inevitable. It's also worth noting that adding a seventh playoff team to each conference, for a total of 14 league-wide, would reduce the chances of a team like the Eagles or 49ers in our scenarios of missing the postseason.
The NFL tabled discussions on a proposed 2015 playoffs expansion during its spring meeting, and perhaps the delay -- and the NFC South's situation -- will spur further discussion. Is there a way to reduce, but not eliminate, the reward of winning a division? Should playoff seeding be based purely on record, or is there a way to differentiate division winners from wild-card teams while still avoiding a 5-11 team hosting a playoff game?
Have an idea? Leave it in the comments section. We have plenty of time to hash it out. And who knows? Maybe an NFC South team will emerge to make the discussion moot for another year.
Of the six different criteria the Playoff Machine uses to forecast the division winner, Carolina (3-7-1) finished no better than second.
Atlanta (4-6), which currently holds the tie-breaker over New Orleans (4-6), only won the division under “Home Team’’ because it has more home games left than the competition.
New Orleans was projected to win under five scenarios. Here’s a complete breakdown:
- Win % -- New Orleans 6-8-2, Atlanta 5-10-1, Carolina 4-11-1.
- Home – Atlanta 8-8, New Orleans 7-9, Carolina 5-10-1.
- Away – New Orleans 7-9, Carolina 6-9-1, Atlanta 6-10.
- Power ranking – New Orleans 8-8, Atlanta 5-11, Carolina 4-11-1.
- Offensive ranking – New Orleans 10-6, Atlanta 7-9, Carolina 5-10-
- Defensive ranking – New Orleans 7-9, Carolina 5-10-1, Atlanta 4-12.
The most popular projection for Carolina is 5-10-1. It’s unrealistic, but there is a way the Panthers could win the division with that record. They would have to win at New Orleans on Dec. 7 and at Atlanta on Dec. 28. That would get them to five wins.
The only win the Saints and Atlanta could have over their final seven games is when one beats the other on Dec. 21, an Atlanta home game.
Coach Ron Rivera believes Carolina has a “strong’’ chance to win the division when I used the word “faint’’ to describe his team’s chances before he began a bye week break.
The Playoff Machine doesn’t agree.
"It was scary for me," Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano said as he recalled those days. "Hearing those [guns], getting emails saying I’m going to be gone for a while and not knowing what’s going on. ... Those were hard times for me."
Makes missing a game-winning field goal seem small in the big scheme of things, doesn’t it?
It’s called perspective.
Gano gained a lot as the son of a master chief petty officer in the Navy, the sibling of three brothers who served in the Marines, the grandson of a World War II vet, the distant relative of a Confederate general who fought in the Civil War and a confidant of George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
"Definitely," Gano said on Tuesday before taking a five-day bye week break. "My dad always instilled discipline and to learn from your mistakes and keep moving on. If you sit back and dwell on your mistakes it’s going to drag you down."
Gano has moved on. He did as soon as he got home Sunday night and saw his two sons, 3 years old and 9 months old.
"They have no idea daddy plays football and what’s at stake," Gano said.
Gano, 27, almost gave up football before the stakes were so high. Coming out of high school in Pensacola, Florida, he was ready to join the Marines like three of his four brothers and fight the War on Iraq with his brother, Stewart Marnie.
Were it not for Stewart, he likely would have done that.
"When he went to war, I obviously was mad and wanted to go with him," Gano said. "He was encouraging me to work hard at football and stick with that."
So Gano used his full scholarship offer to attend Florida State, where as a senior he won the Lou Groza Award for the nation’s top kicker. He worked his way from the United States Football League to the Washington Redskins to the Panthers late in the 2012 season.
This past offseason -- after making 24 of 27 field goals, including all six from 50-plus yards -- he signed a four-year deal worth $12.4 million.
He’s not going to let a missed field goal, even one as big as Sunday’s that could have put the Panthers (3-7-1) in first place in the NFC South, bring him down. Other than taking a break from social media, it’s been business as usual.
As much as the team needs a break, he would like to be back on the field on Sunday with a chance to win the game.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who also grew up in a military family, understands.
"He’s very strong," Rivera said. "He understands and he gets it and knows it. He and I talked about it. He’ll get an opportunity to win games for us."
Gano hopes so.
"I want to redeem myself and hit another field goal," he said. "At the same time I have to use that as motivation. I’m not a guy who is going to stay down in the dumps and be upset with what happened."
Growing up in a military family prepared Gano for moments like this. You could see his respect for the armed forces during halftime of Carolina’s Salute to Service game. He stood at attention instead of going through his normal kicking routine while a group of Marines went through a drill exercise.
Remember, this is the same player who took on a trombonist to warm up during halftime of the opener at Tampa Bay.
"It’s another lesson learned from Week 1," he said. "You always go on and learn from your mistakes."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tuesday's decision to cut Jason Avant wasn't some knee-jerk reaction to the veteran wide receiver suggesting the Carolina Panthers could have been more aggressive with the play calling in the final minutes of Sunday's 19-17 loss.
It was a reaction to opponents for weeks playing man-to-man defense without fear of receivers getting separation.
It was a reaction to get more speed on the field with undrafted rookie free agent Philly Brown -- as well as Brenton Bersin and De'Andre Presley.
And this wasn't something that became evident on Sunday when Brown got deep for a 47-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
This has been building since the Pittsburgh game in Week 3. With Jerricho Cotchery sidelined with a hamstring injury, Brown caught seven passes for 66 yards.
Avant had two catches for 12 yards in that game.
Brown followed that up with two catches for 35 yards in a Week 4 loss at Baltimore despite being on the field for only 12 plays. Avant had two catches for 24 yards and was on the field for 41 plays.
The Panthers may have cut Avant sooner, but Brown suffered a concussion during a Week 7 loss at Green Bay and wasn't able to play in the next three games.
His touchdown against Atlanta was a signal the former Ohio State star was ready to contribute again.
"When you have veteran guys who play a lot in front of younger guys that have potential, sometimes you stunt their growth," coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday after letting players go for a bye-week break.
Brown not only can play wide receiver, he can return kicks. While still an adventure at times, that's more than Avant offered.
So was it a mistake signing the 31-year-old Avant as a free agent out of Philadelphia? Not at the time. The Panthers needed to add veteran leaders after releasing all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and losing their next three wide receivers in free agency.
They went with Avant and Cotchery.
Did they realize neither was a speedster? Yes. They were counting on somebody to emerge out of free-agent signee Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt.
None panned out.
Brown emerged late as that guy, but because he spent so much time behind the others throughout offseason workouts and training camp he wasn't ready to step into a significant role when the season began.
The Panthers believe he is now. They believe his speed brings to the offense what Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with Arizona during the offseason, did last season.
Brown gives the receiving corps more flexibility than Avant, who had only 21 catches for 201 yards in 11 games.
They need him to be dynamic, a word Rivera has used often to describe him, if they're going to make a run at Atlanta (4-6) and New Orleans (4-6) for the NFC South title.
"Probably one of the things that was really illustrated in the Philadelphia game was as much man coverage as we got," Rivera said. "And then going into [the Atlanta] game and seeing how much man coverage you get, that's tough. It changes what you're trying to do because of what they're doing.
"So now Sunday, watching the game and watching them trying to play man coverage and watching Philly run by or get open, now all of a sudden it's, 'Hey guys, this is what we've got to start doing.'"
"The last couple weeks, it was strictly health,'' defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said of Massaquoi's limited action. "I hope he's well this week. Last week, he was better than the week before in practice, but not well enough to really participate, to get ready for the game.
"I didn't think he was ready for the (Carolina) game because he didn't practice enough. And as the game went on, it wasn't like it was necessary that we had him. The guys were doing a good job. ... But this week could be his week. If he's healthy again, I expect him to play, you know, more on the base downs."
Massaquoi had emerged as a pass-rushing threat following consecutive strong games against Chicago and Baltimore. Then he suddenly saw his snap percentage drop from 73 percent against the Bears to 49 percent against the Lions in London, leading him to lobby for more playing time.
"The guy was like seven snaps (short)," Nolan said of the Detroit game. "If we didn't have to go back on the field at the end of the game, there wouldn't have been seven more snaps."
A healthy Massaquoi could only help the pass rush as the Falcons prepare to host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. The Falcons are tied for 29th in the league with 13 sacks and are 30th in the league in sacks per pass attempt. Massaquoi has two sacks in five quarterback hits.
The Browns, led by perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, are 10th in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, who has attempted 325 passes, has been sacked 15 times.
If the Falcons are able to generate pressure, it should help new starting cornerback Robert McClain as he attempts to keep up with the Browns' speedy receivers. McClain is taking over for the injured Robert Alford (broken wrist).
The rush also should aid top cornerback Desmond Trufant, who is expected to contend with reinstated Browns receiver Josh Gordon.
The Panthers, as you can see from the following tweet, were made aware of this.
Cam Newton's twitter account has been hacked, we're currently working to resolve the issue.— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) November 18, 2014
Well, at least the Panthers thought they had the hacker under control. At around 5:25 p.m. this person was back at it, writing under Newton’s name that he wants to go to a good team, putting a smiley face at the end of the tweet. That tweet was quickly deleted, as were the earlier tweets. But there were some really interesting -- and entertaining -- tweets floating around before the Panthers became wise to the hack.
The one that clinched this really wasn’t Newton came at 3:30 p.m. when the Tweet read: @RSherman_25 overrated.
Newton wasn’t thrilled when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman beat him out for the Madden NFL 15 cover, but he’s not the type to take to public retaliation.
The hacker also tweeted under @CamNewton that “My fantasy team sucks smh"
There also were a few funny replies, such as the person that wrote Newton’s twitter password is easier to break through than his offensive line.
Yes, it’s been a tough season for the first pick of the 2011 draft. He was made fun of during the “C’mon Man!" segment of ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecast for saying “Hindsight is 50-50" -- again -- after Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta.
Newton also made a bad fashion statement earlier this season with the Capri pants.
Having his Twitter account hacked was like piling on.
At 4:39, Newton responded with this Tweet:
Practice actually ended at around 11:30 a.m., but when you’ve had the kind of year Newton is having we’ll give him a break on that.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has all but given up on the idea of defensive end Greg Hardy being reinstated after the NFL's decision Tuesday to suspend Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for the rest of the season.
"Probably,'' Rivera said Tuesday when asked if Hardy's return from the commissioner's exempt list now was a dead issue.
Rivera said general manager Dave Gettleman was alerted to the league's decision on Peterson "and they're going to discuss and see where it goes.''
"Seeing what happened, obviously they're going to react to it and we'll go from there,'' Rivera said.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers on Tuesday released veteran wide receiver Jason Avant and placed starting right tackle Nate Chandler on injured reserve with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
They also activated fullback/running back Mike Tolbert (leg) from injured reserve and signed wide receiver De'Andre Presley from the practice squad.
Avant signed a one-year deal worth $1,050,000 during the offseason as a free agent. The former Eagle was brought in to provide veteran leadership after the Panthers cut all-time leading receiver Steve Smith and lost their next three wide receivers in free agency.
Coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday's move was made to give undrafted rookie Philly Brown more opportunities and more vertical speed to the offense in general. Brown caught a 47-yard touchdown pass in Sunday's 19-17 loss to Atlanta.
Rivera said the move had nothing to do with Avant questioning the play calling in the final minutes of the loss, when the Panthers (3-7-1) called three consecutive runs before missing a 46-yard field goal with 1:22 remaining.
"Guys, I have no idea what he said,'' Rivera said before giving players the rest of the week off for their bye. "This had nothing to do with it. And that needs to stop right here.''
Avant told the Charlotte Observer after Carolina's fifth consecutive loss that the Panthers could have been a "little more aggressive'' to give Graham Gano an easier kick.
The good thing about a bye week is it allows players to work on fundamentals. For quarterback Cam Newton, that means stepping into his throws. Not that Newton is totally to blame for throwing off his back foot more than normal lately. Before Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, he had been sacked 19 times in four games -- more than any quarterback in the NFL during that span.
On the first play against Atlanta, the right tackle went right when the rest of the offensive line went left (as the blocking scheme was designed), and Newton took an uncontested shot to the head. When Newton consistently had time to throw early in the season he was as fundamentally sound as he's been in his career. As injuries have impacted his protection, he's taken a step -- no pun intended -- backward. A couple plays stood out on Sunday.
On a third-and-4 pass from the Atlanta 5, Newton threw off his back foot to tight end Greg Olsen. The pass lacked zip, giving the defensive back time to knock the ball down at the goal line. On third-and-2 on Carolina's first series of the second half, Newton threw off his back foot to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. The defensive back stepped in front of the play for an easy interception. To be fair, Benjamin didn't do a great job of running hard on the slant, leaving room for the defensive back to make the play.
There are times when Newton is effective throwing off his back foot. In the first half, while scrambling to his right, he completed a first-down pass to Benjamin on third-and-9. Later in the drive, he threw sidearm for a completion to Olsen. "I'd say there are times when he needs to step into it, but I wouldn't characterize that as a bad habit," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "Late in the game, he probably was as good technique wise as he's ever been. We work on it as hard as we ever had. He is talented. Sometimes he can get away with it when he's throwing off his back foot a little bit. It happens sporadically, let alone the fact the guy gets hit [a lot]. It's easy for us to say, 'step into it, step into it.'"
During a five-game losing streak the Panthers (3-7-1) have scored only 26 points combined in the first three quarters, an average of 5.2 points per game.
They had only three points through the first three quarters of Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, who came into the game with the worst rated pass defense in the NFL.
The Panthers scored a combined 48 points in the fourth quarter, including 28 the past two weeks against Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Newton hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in the first three quarters since a 3-yarder to Kelvin Benjamin six games ago in a 37-37 tie at Cincinnati.
Over the last five games, Newton has no touchdowns and five interceptions in the first half. In the second half, he has five touchdowns (all in the fourth quarter) to three interceptions.
Newton’s passer rating this season is 80.3, worse than every quarterback except Oakland rookie Derek Carr (76.0), Minnesota rookie Teddy Bridgewater (75.0), Jacksonville rookie Blake Bortles (72.2) and New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (65.6).
Smith was benched three games ago and replaced by Michael Vick.
There’s been no talk of benching Newton.
Where Newton has excelled is the fourth quarter. His passer rating is 113.1 in the final quarter, third-best in the NFL but second-best on the Panthers. Backup quarterback Derek Anderson ranks first at 125.9.
Newton has eight touchdowns to only one interception in the fourth quarter. He has only four touchdowns to nine interceptions in the first three quarters.
That the Panthers haven’t been good on third down doesn’t help. They converted only three of 13 attempts against Atlanta. Nine of those were four yards or longer, which puts more pressure on the quarterback. On the season they rank 20th in the league in third-down conversions with a 40 percent success rate.
Finding a way to get Newton on track early will be key if the Panthers have any chance of staying in the hunt for the NFC South title when they return from a bye week.
Despite Newton’s woes, the Panthers are only a win behind Atlanta (4-6) and New Orleans (4-6).
“We’ve just got to get in rhythm as a whole team," Newton said. “When we do that, everybody seems to loosen up and play better."
Does Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 240) suffer from a similar predicament against smaller defensive backs?
Coach Ron Rivera believes so.
A prime example was a second-and-4 play from the Atlanta 5-yard line late in the first quarter of Sunday’s 19-17 loss. Quarterback Cam Newton threw a high fade pass to Benjamin in the left corner of the end zone. The defensive back had his hands all over the rookie receiver.
No penalty was called.
“In my opinion, and this is my opinion strictly, I thought there was some contact,’’ Rivera said on Monday.
It’s not the first time this season Rivera has felt the defensive back has gotten away with interference against the former Florida State star, who is second among rookie receivers in receptions (52), first in receiving yards (768) and first in touchdown catches (8).
“Sometimes it kind of feels like the Shaquille O’Neal treatment,’’ Rivera said. “He’s a big guy and he may get hammered and he may get hit, but he doesn’t fall down. Sometimes that might play into the decision making. I’m not quite sure.’’
Benjamin shrugs it off as that’s the way life is, having gone through some of the same things in college.
But from defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, there’s no doubt from the Carolina coaching staff that illegal contact impacted the first-quarter play.
“It was clearly pass interference,’’ Proehl said. “He’s so big and strong he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.’’
The man who has drilled into his players not to look past the next game, looked at the next five. He took a macro look at the season instead of the micro look that has defined him.
He did so because he felt it was important that his players understood that despite a 3-7-1 record, despite having lost five straight games and winning only once in the past nine, they still have a chance at the playoffs.
That was Rivera’s message on Monday as Carolina enters a bye week before resuming its season on November 30 at Minnesota.
"I broke my own rule and looked ahead," Rivera said. "I told the guys, 'We’ve got five games left to play. If we take care of business in all five games and one or two things happen, then we win the division.'
"That’s how simple it is."
It’s not that simple. Rivera admitted the Panthers have to win all five games against Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta to have a chance.
They also need Atlanta and New Orleans to lose at least one more game and not get past eight wins.
An 8-7-1 Carolina team then would win the division title by percentage points because of its tie against Cincinnati.
It’s also not that simple, because that would mean a team that hasn’t won since Oct. 5 against Chicago has to win five straight.
But Rivera doesn’t think it’s such a long shot.
"I don’t believe it’s a faint hope," he said. "I believe it’s a strong hope."
Do the Panthers deserve to be in the race with three wins 11 games into the season? Cornerback Josh Norman might have summed that up best after Sunday’s 19-17 loss to Atlanta when he said, "Does anybody in the NFC South deserve to be in it?"
Based on records, probably not.
But somebody is going to be the division champion, so the Panthers figure it might as well be them. Even Norman admits that.
"Yes," Norman said. "If the Panthers win it they deserve it ... hands down."
According to Elias, this is the third time since the NFL went to at least four divisions in 1967 that a team two games under .500 is at least in a share for first place this late in the season. The last time was in 2010 when Seattle and St. Louis were in that position.
Seattle won the division with a 7-9 record, and then won a playoff game at home.
Rivera was part of a San Diego team in 2008 that won its final four games to finish 8-8 and win the division. That team also won a playoff game.
"That’s why it’s a division," Rivera said. "It’s a division race. We’re in the middle of a division race."
As bad as this season has gotten, as ridiculous as it sounds to be talking about the possibilities of making the playoffs, that is what Carolina is clinging to as it enters its bye week.
On paper, the Panthers have the easiest route. Their opponents have a combined record of 20-30 (.400) record. The Saints’ opponents are 25-35-1 (.410). Atlanta’s opponents are a combined 35-25-1 (.574).
So when Rivera got out of his comfort one and looked ahead on the schedule, his players didn’t think it was that unusual.
"That’s the human nature of the beast," Norman said.
Defensive tackle Colin Cole said Rivera’s speech was motivational, especially for younger players used to the college system in which one or two losses takes you out of the running for a national championship.
"If we take care of our business and one other thing happens, we win the division," Rivera said. "That’s how crazy it is."
Since we’re looking ahead, here’s a look at what Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans face:
PANTHERS (3-7-1, 1-2 in division)
Remaining schedule: Nov. 23 – Bye; Nov. 30 – at Minnesota (4-6); Dec. 7 – at New Orleans (4-6); Dec. 14 – Tampa Bay (2-8); Dec. 21 – Cleveland (6-4); Dec. 28 – at Atlanta (4-6).
Opponent’s record: 20-30 (.400)
FALCONS (4-6, 4-0 in division)
Remaining schedule: Nov. 23 – Cleveland (6-4); Nov. 30 – Arizona (9-1); Dec. 8 – at Green Bay (7-3); Dec. 14 – Pittsburgh (6-4); Dec. 21 – at New Orleans (4-6); Dec. 28 – Carolina (3-7-1).
Opponent’s record: 35-25-1 (.574)
SAINTS (4-6, 2-1 in division) Remaining schedule: Nov. 24 – Baltimore (6-4); Nov. 30 – at Pittsburgh (6-4); Dec. 7 – Carolina (3-7-1); Dec. 14 – at Chicago (4-6); Dec. 21 – Atlanta (4-6); Dec. 28 – at Tampa Bay (2-8).
Opponent’s record: 25-35-1 (.410)