CHARLOTTE – The Panthers don't have anything to play for this week, at least in terms of the postseason.
That does not mean head coach Matt Rhule doesn't have a goal.
Specifically, he's setting a high bar for his 5-10 team, as they close the regular season against the Saints.
"I want to play our best game," Rhule said Monday. "For the Saints, they're playing for the one seed. So if you think about it, they'd be the only team in the NFC that doesn't have to play a first-round game. That's huge. So this is like a playoff game for them, so we're going to get their absolute best, which is really, really, really outstanding.
"So I'm anxious to see us go match that and go see if we can play as well as they do. That's really it, to be quite honest."
The Saints can clinch the NFL's only playoff bye with a win over the Panthers, along with a Packers loss to the Bears and a Seahawks win at the 49ers. It's a long shot, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.
The Saints have parked guys against the Panthers before, but since the Packers and Seahawks also play in the 4:25 p.m. slot, the teams won't have that luxury Sunday.
Regardless, Rhule is expecting his team to play at a high level this week before they head their separate ways for the offseason.
Two weeks ago, Rhule said his goal was for the Panthers to learn how to handle December's distractions so that players remembered to buy Christmas presents and study the third-down game plan. Whether all the gifts were bought, the Panthers gave a solid accounting of themselves Sunday against a Washington team that could have clinched a playoff berth.
Specifically, he talked about the leadership of Shaq Thompson, of veteran linebacker Tahir Whitehead and safety Tre Boston coming up with picks, and cornerback Donte Jackson holding up well (and getting a game ball) despite being targeted deep five times.
"There was a real maturity to the team this week," Rhule said.
Rhule is already anticipating a mixed bag on the offensive line this week after backup left tackle Trent Scott left with a shoulder injury and didn't return.
Rhule said Scott was "probably a no" for this week, leaving them threadbare at tackle.
Versatile sub Michael Schofield finished the game, but Rhule wasn't ready to commit to him as the starter, saying he wanted to see how the week went and whether they promote anyone from the practice squad.
Scott was starting for Russell Okung, who was inactive because of his calf injury. Greg Little went on IR earlier this month after he was injured in practice, so the left tackle spot could be a grab bag this week.
Rhule also said he was "leaning toward no" for running back Christian McCaffrey, though he wanted to wait until midweek to be more declarative.
McCaffrey's missed all but three games this year with ankle, shoulder, and quad injuries. He's tried to go out and test the quad before some recent practices but hasn't been able to continue.
Rhule also said he wasn't expecting cornerback Troy Pride Jr. to return after the rookie suffered a hip injury a week ago.
DOING HIS RESEARCH
Rhule began his Monday press conference by circling back to questions from Sunday about the difference between winning a game and draft position.
Clearly, he had a point to make.
His overall theme was that the team had to discover how to win games in December and win games in the fourth quarter.
That's why questions about draft status fall flat with Rhule, because he's trying to teach lessons that will be valid in Decembers that matter.
"I think it's a learned skill. You have to learn to win at the end of the year," he said.
Rhule said that in breaking down the four seasons since the Panthers went to the Super Bowl following the 2015 season, he noticed they were 6-14 in regular season games in December and January.
For the purposes of his explanation, he threw out the 2018 win against the Saints (who were resting starters, setting up a Kyle Allen versus Teddy Bridgewater showdown), dropping the record to an effective 5-14.
Three of those wins came in 2017, when the Panthers last made the playoffs, leaving a 2-12 mark in the other three years.
"I've been preaching to our team, if you want to be a champion, it's the way you play at the end of seasons and the end of games," he said. "We've been given the blessing of going to Lambeau and playing a team that's playing for the first seed, a team yesterday that it was a playoff game for them, and a Saints team that's playing to be the first second or third (seed). . . .
"Organizationally, we haven't won games in December, which is why we haven't made playoff runs, so that's a focus this year, among others."
And for one more week, you can be sure his players are going to hear that message.
View game action photos of Carolina's Week 16 game at Washington.