CHARLOTTE – In both 2013 and 2014, the Carolina Panthers couldn't call themselves division champions until the final play of their final regular season game in Atlanta.
This season, they clinched before even facing the Falcons for the first time.
Even so, head coach Ron Rivera said Monday that the Panthers haven't yet won anything – except the right to compete for their ultimate goal.
"It's the first step. If you become division champs, you give yourself the chance obviously the opportunity for the playoffs, but we've got to continue to play," Rivera said. "There's still a lot of work left to go, and we'll see how things unfold.
"The next big step obviously is Atlanta. They're a team battling for their playoff lives. We just have to keep working."
The Panthers clinched the division before taking the field for their Week 13 game in New Orleans on Sunday, wrapping it up when the Falcons fell to Tampa Bay moments before Carolina's kickoff. The Panthers then remained unbeaten - barely – with a 41-38 victory over the Saints.
When Week 5 came to a close and both the Panthers and Falcons both stood undefeated, some observers peeked ahead to the schedule and looked forward to Carolina and Atlanta squaring off in Weeks 14 and 16. Since then, the Panthers are 8-0 while the Falcons are 1-6.
"It's just that sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don't," Rivera said of the teams' divergent paths. "It's tough to say because they run the ball efficiently and do some nice things on the offensive side, and they're an aggressive defense."
The Panthers' next step is trying to secure homefield advantage and a playoff bye. They can't clinch homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs Sunday but can earn a bye with a victory, but they'll be facing a Falcons team with arguably even more on the line. The Falcons and the Buccaneers – who will account for three of Carolina's final four games – are the NFC's lone 6-6 teams, one game behind Seattle for the final playoff spot.
"We've got to think about who we're playing in three of these last four games. Division foes - Atlanta twice and Tampa," Rivera said. "You have to focus because these guys know you, know who you are. They know your strengths and weaknesses better than anybody else with the league.
"And they're playing for playoff situations."
The Saints certainly demonstrated the challenge division games present even for the three-time division champions, pushing the Panthers to the absolute brink. The narrow victory only served to ramp up chatter about whether Carolina can run the table, but such talk is muted in the locker room.
"We're trying to win a division game this week," defensive end Jared Allen said. "In the outside world, it sells. It's great hype. But as a team, I don't think the goal has ever changed – you've got to win the week ahead of you.
"We accomplished our first goal by winning the division. You're guaranteed to be in the playoffs now. The next goal now would be homefield advantage."
As the number of checkboxes remaining in the regular season dwindle, Rivera could face decisions relating to keeping starters fresh versus keeping them from getting rusty. Rivera said an experience he had as defensive coordinator with the 2009 San Diego Chargers – when they lost their playoff opener after resting their starters in the regular season finale – means he'll guard against giving starters too much time on the sideline.
But his decisions won't be made with an unbeaten regular season in mind; they will be made with an unbeaten postseason in mind.
"If we do get in that situation, the goal isn't to go 16-0. The goal is to win the Super Bowl, and so we've got to be smart about it," Rivera said. "The most important thing is to come into the playoffs on an up note as opposed to a down note."
Week 13: Saints vs. Panthers