CHARLOTTE – When the Bank of America Stadium crowd erupted during a second-half timeout, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera couldn't help himself.
"I heard the crowd cheering at something, so I looked up and they showed the score," Rivera said, referring to the crowd's reaction to seeing that fellow NFC South contender New Orleans was struggling in St. Louis. "But for the most part, I was really concerned with our scoreboard."
The Saints, one game ahead of the Panthers entering Sunday, played a hopeless game of catch-up all day before finally falling 27-16 to the Rams.
But at the same time, the New York Jets were on the verge of catching the Panthers, and a Carolina loss would render a Saints stumble virtually meaningless.
"We had our hands full focusing on this game," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said.
Eventually the Panthers did pull away, claiming a 30-20 victory over the Jets that sets up the biggest home game since Carolina's last playoff appearance five years ago.
"It swayed things where we control our own destiny again, which is good for us," Newton said. "Now we have to do a great job of preparing this week so we can put on a great performance at BOA."
According to my calculations that have not yet been confirmed by the NFL, the Panthers are in the playoffs if they win either of their final two games. Win both of their final two games, and for once the Panthers would actually be glad to sit at home and watch the playoffs on TV. That's because winning out would earn Carolina the division championship as well as a first-round bye, setting the Panthers up to host an NFC Divisional game with a spot in the NFC Championship hanging in the balance.
"We've done the best we can to put ourselves in a position like this," Rivera said. "Now we have to go out and take care of our business."
That's exactly what the Panthers did Sunday.
Facing a Jets team desperately scratching to remain in the AFC playoff hunt, the Panthers had their hands full. They finished the first half strong, however, scoring 10 points over the final 3:29 of the second quarter to lead 16-6.
Carolina took a shot at delivering a knockout punch early in the second half, but it backfired. Facing a fourth-and-2 from the Jets' 14, "Riverboat Ron" rolled the dice in an attempt to claim a three-score lead. But the Jets' defense came up with a stop, then their offense kept the momentum going with an 86-yard touchdown drive. New York then got the ball back early in the fourth quarter with a chance to regain the lead.
"That is a part of it," Rivera said. "I was trying to get a spark."
The spark and the three-score lead came soon enough. The Panthers defense stymied the Jets' hopes for regaining the lead before their first fourth-quarter drive even got off the ground, then linebacker Jason Williams blocked a punt to set up a 14-yard touchdown drive. Carolina's subsequent touchdown "drive" was shorter still, with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn putting it away with a defensive touchdown on a 41-yard interception return.
With that, attention quickly turned to next week's second act against the Saints. While New Orleans lost for the fourth time in its last five road games Sunday, the Panthers won their sixth consecutive home game. Both trends bode well, but it doesn't change the fact that the Saints' best performance over the last five weeks and the Panthers' worst came when the teams squared off in New Orleans last week.
"This is a good football team that's coming in. We know that," Rivera said. "We're ready to find out who is going to win the division."