CHARLOTTE – With two weeks left in the regular season, the number of possible playoff matchups in the NFC is big enough to make a mathematician wince.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is applying simple math to the equation.
"The only thing I see is that it's about winning, and every time we win we get closer to it," Rivera said. "There's a lot of parity right now, and it makes for an exciting season. It will give you heartburn, but it's kind of the way it is. It's exciting."
The schedule-makers couldn't be happier, with 10 NFC teams still in contention for the six spots. Nine of those 10 – the Detroit Lions being the exception – will face at least one other competing NFC team over the next two weeks.
The Panthers (10-4), who host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday with control of the NFC South on the line, will qualify for the playoffs with a victory in either of their remaining games. It would be a rare accomplishment for a team starting 1-3: Since 1990, roughly one out of every dozen teams to start 1-3 has rallied to reach the playoffs.
Here's a look at the different scenarios that can play out depending on how Carolina closes out the season.
IF THE PANTHERS WIN THEIR FINAL TWO GAMES: Obviously the most desirable outcome for the Panthers, it would result in a division championship, a first-round bye and a home game. The No. 2 seed is the most likely result, though Carolina could actually wind up No. 1 if San Francisco also wins out and Seattle loses out to give the 49ers the NFC West title.
IF THE PANTHERS LOSE THEIR FINAL TWO GAMES: If this fate were to befall Carolina, the Panthers would need either the 49ers or the Arizona Cardinals to lose out in order to still reach the playoffs. If both the 49ers and Cardinals lose this week, the Panthers clinch a playoff spot because San Francisco and Arizona play each other in Week 17, meaning one would lose its final two games. If the Panthers drop to 10-6 and don't make the playoffs, they'd be on the short end of a statistical rarity. Since the NFL went to 12 playoffs teams in 1990, 91.8 percent of 10-6 teams (67 of 73) have qualified for the playoffs, including 31 division winners.
IF THE PANTHERS BEAT THE SAINTS BUT LOSE TO THE FALCONS IN WEEK 17: In this case, the Panthers would make the playoffs but could be either the No. 2 seed with a bye or occupy either of the two wild-card spots and hit the road. They would still win the division if the Saints were to stumble at home in Week 17 versus Tampa Bay. If the Saints took care of business, Carolina would be seeded fifth or sixth depending on how the 49ers and Cardinals finish.
IF THE PANTHERS LOSE TO THE SAINTS BUT BEAT THE FALCONS: In this case, the Panthers couldn't capture the division but would be in as a wild card. There is a chance, by the way, that the Panthers could end up in a three-way tie at 11-5 with the 49ers and Cardinals, in which case Carolina would be the No. 5 seed and San Francisco would be No. 6. Arizona would become just the second 11-5 team since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990 and the third team in the 16-game era that began in 1978 to miss the playoffs at 11-5. While 77 teams with 11-5 marks have made the playoffs (including 43 division winners), the 2008 New England Patriots and 1985 Denver Broncos missed the playoffs.