Taking a look at the NFC playoff race entering Week 11

CHARLOTTE – If the NFC playoff picture wasn't already cloudy enough, it certainly is now after everything that went down in Week 10. Unlike the AFC, where a handful of teams are head and shoulders above the rest, things aren't as clear in the NFC.

The biggest news came at the top of the conference, where the previously unbeaten 49ers suffered their first loss at the hands of the NFC West rival Seahawks. Right behind San Fran, the one-loss Saints were upset by the Falcons, an NFC South foe.

If the season ended today, the Panthers would miss the playoff cut sitting in ninth place in the NFC, but luckily for Carolina, that's not the case. With four NFC South matchups looming, the Panthers are still in control of their own destiny when it comes to making the playoffs.

The easiest way for the Panthers to secure their spot in the post-season would be to win out against the Saints and Falcons and take the NFC South crown. Easier said than done.

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Here's how the current playoff picture looks:

  1. 49ers (8-1) – NFC West leader
  2. Packers (8-2) – NFC North leader
  3. Saints (7-2) – NFC South leader
  4. Cowboys (5-4) – NFC East leader
  5. Seahawks (8-2) – Wildcard
  6. Vikings (7-3) – Wildcard

Then come the teams on the outside looking in, all battling to make the cut:

  1. Rams (5-4)
  2. Eagles (5-4)
  3. Panthers (5-4)
  4. Bears (4-5)

With seven games left, six of which are against NFC opponents, the Panthers still have to face the Saints and Falcons twice, the Redskins, the Seahawks and the AFC's Colts. If Carolina is unable to sweep its remaining NFC South matchups and win an outright playoff bid as the division champs, it could all come down to the mid-December matchup against Seattle. As it stands right now, Seattle is one game behind the 49ers in the NFC West, and if that holds true, then the Panthers-Seahawks showdown could be the determining factor for which team gets a wildcard bid. And it's not as if the Panthers and Seahawks haven't waged wars before.

The two most likely scenarios that will push Carolina into the playoffs would be either catching the Saints in the NFC South race, or leaping over the Vikings to secure a wildcard spot. So how do the Panthers make those options happen?

Catching the Saints

As it stands, the Saints (7-2) are two games ahead of the Panthers (5-4) in the NFC South standings. Each team has one divisional loss with four NFC South matchups left on their schedules – two of which are against each other. There are two ways the Panthers can catch and pass the Saints. Number one is simple: sweep New Orleans and win out. Assuming the Saints do too, with the exception of their games against Carolina, both teams will finish 12-4, and the Panthers will be crowned NFC South champions via head-to-head tiebreaker.

Scenario number two is a little trickier. If the Panthers split one and one with New Orleans, then they would have to sweep Atlanta and win their two remaining games, too. Then, they'd have to count on the Saints to lose at least two other games to force a tie, and even then an NFC South championship isn't guaranteed. At that point, it would all come down to the Panthers and Saints records within the division, so the end result would depend on who defeats the Saints in those two hypothetical losses.

In this scenario, the Panthers aren't in complete control of their future, which always makes things a lot more stressful for players, coaches, fans and pretty much everyone else.

Passing the Vikings

Assuming New Orleans secures the outright bid as champion of the NFC South, the other most reasonable way for the Panthers to secure a spot in the playoffs would be by surpassing the Vikings as a wildcard, who have three losses compared to Seattle's two.

Of the Vikings six remaining games, the most intriguing matchups are a Monday night clash with the Seahawks and back-to-back games against NFC North foes the Packers and the Bears – two teams who have already beaten Minnesota.

The Panthers remaining schedule is no cake walk, but neither is the Vikings. If the Vikings drop a game or two, the Panthers will have plenty of opportunities to climb into the wildcard race.

Who else?

Of the remaining teams on the outside looking in, the Eagles look to be in the best situation to move into the discussion. Despite having the same record as the NFC East rival Cowboys, an early season loss in Dallas has given the Cowboys the nod as of now. A Week 16 matchup between the two could change that, though.

Regardless of which path the Panthers take to the playoffs, the most important key to keeping the postseason hopes alive will be making sure they don't suffer a meltdown in games they're expected to win. That all starts this Sunday against Atlanta.

The Panthers will likely be favored in three of their next four games (Redskins once, Falcons twice), and each one is a must-win to keep the team's playoff dream alive. If Carolina can secure those three wins, that leaves four toss ups. The Panthers will need to beat the Seahawks and Colts, and likely steal one win against the Saints to put themselves in serious contention in the stacked NFC playoff race.

Then again, winning every game would make everything a lot simpler. It always does.

View the best photos from the field, locker room and sidelines as the Panthers took on the Green Bay Packers in a hard-fought game in the snow of Lambeau Field.

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