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A path to the playoffs is still sitting there for the Panthers

Christian McCaffrey celebrates

The 2014 Panthers have no plans to give back their playoff paychecks, and they'll never apologize for getting into the postseason despite suffering through a six-game losing skid in the middle of the season.

Even though it's hard to fathom at this moment, the 2018 Panthers still have a shot to do the same despite their current five-game slide.

And the help they would need from other teams is less than what was required four years ago.

Tonight's Monday Night Football matchup is a key piece of the equation for us dreamers still out there. Regardless of tonight's outcome the Panthers at 6-7 will remain No. 7 in the NFC (six teams make the playoffs), but their hopes are much brighter if the Seahawks take care of the Vikings in Seattle. If that happens, the Panthers will enter the final three weeks a half-game behind a 6-6-1 Vikings team for the final NFC berth.

The most depressed of the Debbie Downers will counter with, "Well, so what if the Panthers back into the playoffs? They'd just get crushed anyway."

Sure, that could happen. But beating a Saints team twice that currently stands as the NFC's top seed wouldn't qualify as "backing in." And if the Panthers suddenly reverse their fortunes in that fashion, who knows what they could or couldn't do in the playoffs?

It really is about scratching your way into the playoffs by any means possible and then seeing what you can make happen. Relatively speaking, four of the seven Super Bowl champions during the Ron Rivera era were afterthoughts entering the postseason.

Just last year, the Eagles with backup Nick Foles under center were considered the longest shot in the NFC by Vegas. The Broncos were a middle-of-the-pack pick in 2015 with quarterback Peyton Manning ailing. Pretty much no one thought the Ravens in 2012 and the Giants in 2011 were a real threat to win it all.

The better point from the naysayers? "Why would I possibly think this team could win its final three games?"

Point well taken. Can't argue with that viewpoint. OK, actually I can.

How could it happen? Because it's the NFL. Because it's happened before – to this team, in fact.

Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart celebrate

In 2014, the Panthers appeared to hit rock-bottom on a ridiculously cold day in Minnesota, when Carolina couldn't do anything right in dropping to 3-8-1. Meanwhile, the Falcons beat a formidable Cardinals team and the Saints beat a contending Steelers squad in Pittsburgh to both improve to a shaky but a division-leading 5-7.

Who in their right mind would have thought the Panthers would travel to New Orleans the next week and beat the Saints? And they didn't just beat the Saints – they obliterated them by a 41-10 count to start a special run that earned Carolina an unlikely playoff bid. The Panthers knocked off the Cardinals in the wild card round before succumbing to a Seahawks team in Seattle headed to a second straight Super Bowl.

Someone is going to be the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs. That's what the rules say. And the No. 6 seed is probably going to visit the Bears or the Cowboys. Or possibly the Saints if it's Carolina that drops New Orleans a couple of times.

Sure, it's hard to see it happening. But it's not as crazy as it feels the day after a fifth consecutive loss.

View the top photos from Panthers at Browns by team photographer, Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez, and second shooter, Aaron Doster.