CHARLOTTE – The playoff picture still hasn't come into focus, with the Panthers in position to earn the No. 2 seed as the NFC South champions but not even assured of making the playoffs at all.
So in head coach Ron Rivera's mind, the playoffs begin now.
"The next two games as far as I'm concerned are exactly that," said Rivera, whose Panthers could clinch a playoff berth and get a major leg up on the No. 2 seed with a victory next week versus the New Orleans Saints. "There's a lot of importance to this game because of the importance going forward. This is about as big as it gets."
The Panthers helped put themselves in such a promising position by improving to 10-4 with a 30-20 victory over the New York Jets, and they got some help when the Saints fell to 10-4 with a 27-16 loss at St. Louis.
The Panthers again control their division title hopes, though it didn't work out the way they hoped the last time they were in this position. Eight days ago in New Orleans, Carolina had a chance to take command but fell flat, falling 31-13 to the Saints.
"There were some mistakes in that game, some things that we didn't do very well and that we have to do better," Rivera said Monday. "We'll take a real good look at it as we formulate a game plan tomorrow night. I'm not sure how different it will be, and I'm not sure how it will be the same because the last few weeks they've had some struggles themselves. Some of the things Seattle did (in a 34-7 win over the Saints in Week 13) were really good, and some of the things the Rams did were very good.
"We'll have to take a real good look at it and see which of those things mesh well with what we do and maybe try to incorporate those things as well."
While the Panthers may tweak some things in the much-anticipated rematch, they want to better take care of their own business as much as anything.
Carolina's offense entered the Jets game ranked fourth in the NFL in touchdown percentage in the red zone (62.5 percent), and the defense was tied for first (39.4 percent). But against New Orleans, the Panthers' first two drives of the game resulted in field goals in the red zone, while the Saints' next three drives resulted in touchdowns.
The 21-6 deficit proved too much to overcome despite a better second-half showing.
"We've got to be able to score touchdowns in the red zone, and when they get down there we've got to make them kick field goals. That was one of the biggest differences early on in that game," Rivera said. "But I wouldn't say there have been a lot of problems. Last week was probably one of the first times where we didn't score touchdowns and had to settle for field goals.
"We missed a block here, we missed a run there, we missed a throw there, dropped a ball here. But it's not like something that's been persistent all year."
In the simplest of terms, Rivera is banking on the Panthers playing more like themselves in the rematch and on the Saints playing more like themselves for that matter.
The Saints are 7-0 at home this season but 3-4 on the road with losses in four of their last five contests away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers, since losing their season opener at Bank of America Stadium in a nail-biter against Seattle, haven't lost at home.
"I really have a lot of confidence in us, and I really feel like the circumstances play well for us now. We're at home for a big game, and I believe our fans are going to show up and give us the support that we need," Rivera said. "It has been exciting this year. Our fans have really responded, and we've given them a reason to.
"I believe our players understand the significance and are going to come out and play well. It's going to be a heck of a football game."