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Playoffs? Yes, we're talking about playoffs

Ron Rivera and Pete Carroll

CHARLOTTE – For a brief second, it seemed like Ron Rivera had decided to drive in the complete opposite direction of coach-speak.

But those who have covered Rivera from the beginning pretty much knew what was coming next.

"Just so everyone understands: This is the most important game we play this year," Rivera said Wednesday in advance of Sunday's game against the Seahawks.

"And then next week will take its place."

Rivera, like pretty much every coach ever, is a one-game-at-a-time kind of coach. But for the world at large, playoff implications are fun to look at pretty much from about Week 2 on, so this Week 12 showdown against Carolina's cross-country rival certainly calls for a peek at the standings.

Again, that's true if you're not a coach. And if you're not, maybe Week 2 is too late to start looking.

"Week One," quarterback Cam Newton said when asked when he first thinks about playoff positioning. "When you win, you're looking at the Buccaneers to see if they won, looking at the Saints to see if they won and seeing if the Falcons won. When you lose, you're seeing if the Buccaneers lost, seeing if the Falcons lost, seeing if the Saints lost. Simple as that."

It's not so simple if you're a coach speaking to the media.

"It has nothing to do with nothing," Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said. "This is a championship matchup for us; it wouldn't matter about any of that stuff. That's a long ways down the road.

"We don't change anything; we've just got to try to put together a great plan and execute and play like it's the only game we've got in the whole world – which it is."

While coaches are really good at not giving any indication that they even know that their teams have any games on the schedule beyond the one coming up Sunday, players are more of a mixed bag.

"It's almost a playoff-like approach to this game," defensive end Wes Horton said. "Obviously they're trying to chase us down in the wild card, and we're trying to stay ahead. It's going to be a huge game for us. The urgency is definitely there."

Now that Newton and Horton have given us a green light to consider playoff implications for a second, let's dive in. The Panthers at 6-4 have the best record in the NFC among non-division leaders, a half a game ahead of the 5-4-1 Vikings in the race for one of the conference's two wild card berths. The Seahawks are 5-5, along with the Cowboys.

If Seattle wins in Charlotte on Sunday, then the Seahawks and Panthers would both be 6-5, but Seattle would claim the tiebreaker. Carolina has the tiebreaker over Dallas but the Cowboys can take over the NFC East lead with a Thanksgiving triumph. Washington as a result would fall into the wild-card race at 6-5 – with the tiebreaker over the Panthers in hand.

In one week, Carolina could tumble from wild-card leaders to out of the playoffs in the ever-popular "if the playoffs started today" worldview.

That, of course, is the pessimistic point of view. Win Sunday and the Panthers obviously maintain the top spot in the wild card race and at the least don't lose ground on the NFC South-leading Saints at 9-1.

"It starts with our division first," Newton said. "And then when you win your division, there's a highly likely chance that you're going to the playoffs."

Indeed, no division champion has ever been left out of the playoffs. On a related note, the Panthers will enter Sunday's game undefeated when they score more points than their opponent.

And to come full-circle with a little coach-speak, scoring more points than Seattle on Sunday is really all that matters.

"I wouldn't call it fun," Rivera said of playing Seattle for the eighth time in seven seasons, "but there is a certain challenge to it that I enjoy. Coach Carroll has been a staple there. They've had a lot of success, and the challenge obviously is competing against their football team."