The Panthers need to beat the Cleveland Browns on Sunday for the sake of their playoff hopes, but believe it or not, they could still be alive even with a loss.
If New Orleans loses to Atlanta on Sunday, and then in Week 17 the Panthers beat Atlanta while the Saints lose at Tampa Bay, Carolina would be your NFC South champions with a 6-9-1 record. That would be the worst record ever for a playoff team, but of course the Panthers would take it.
That, of course, is the most unlikely way Carolina reaches the playoffs. Since the Panthers are taking this thing one game at a time, here are the other scenarios that could play out Sunday, starting with the one most favorable for Carolina and ending with the worst-case scenario.
PANTHERS WIN, SAINTS LOSE: In this scenario, the Panthers regain control of their playoff destiny while the Saints go from having a chance to clinch to being eliminated from contention. Atlanta would clinch the tiebreaker over New Orleans in the process, setting up a division championship game of sorts where the winner of next week's Panthers-Falcons game takes the title.
PANTHERS WIN, SAINTS WIN: In this one, the Falcons are the team this is eliminated, and rather than setting up a winner-take-all game, it would set up some serious scoreboard watching in Atlanta and Tampa Bay come Week 17. The Panthers would need to beat the Falcons and have the Saints lose to the Buccaneers. Otherwise, the Saints would win the South.
PANTHERS LOSE, SAINTS WIN: Finally, Week 17 becomes irrelevant in this scenario, as the Saints would be crowned champs Sunday. The Panthers-Falcons game would be reduced to a battle for second place.
It's surely crossed someone's mind out there: What if there's a tie? Given the unlikely nature of that (and yes, I know the Panthers have a tie this season), I'm not going to break down all of those possibilities. I will point out that if New Orleans and Atlanta tie Sunday to leave all the contenders with one tie, the Falcons would hold the trump card because they'd either win head-to-head tiebreakers or have the best division record in any two- or three-team ties for the division title.