Panthers must win NFC South to guarantee home playoff game

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 2, 2013 

STADIUM_SECURITY_10

The Panthers have sent out invoices for potential home playoff games, but the only way to guarantee Carolina has one is to win the NFC South. Two games against the New Orleans Saints in a 15-day span will go far in deciding the division champion.

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The NFC playoff picture and the Carolina Panthers’ path to the postseason will become much clearer after they meet New Orleans in a road game on Sunday night.

But the Panthers (9-3) have already started preparations for potential home playoff games, sending out invoices to 62,000 Personal Seat License owners last week inviting them to reserve their tickets for as many as two home playoff games.

If the Panthers want a shot at hosting a playoff game before the NFC Championship Game, they must win the NFC South.

Six NFC teams make the playoffs – the four division champions and the two teams with the next-best records. The two division champs with the best records get first-round byes, with the other two hosting wild-card games, even if they have inferior records.

The winners of those two games travel for the divisional round. The conference championship game will be hosted by the team with the best regular-season record.

Carolina plays the Saints twice in 15 days, starting with Sunday night’s matchup, and those two games will go a long way in deciding the NFC South.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he’s aware of the Panthers’ need to sweep the Saints to put them in the best position to win the division and possibly receive a first-round bye.

“But the biggest thing as we talked about to the players is taking care of our business,” Rivera said. “That is if we focus in on each game one game at a time, win each game one game at a time, we give ourselves that opportunity. I most certainly am aware of that.”

The last time the Panthers sent a playoff ticket invoice to PSL owners was 2008, when the team went 12-4 and hosted a divisional playoff game. Phil Youtsey, the Panthers director of ticket operations, said PSL owners have until Dec.18 to reserve their tickets.

If PSL owners buy tickets but the Panthers do not host a playoff game, those fans can receive a refund or have the money roll over to next season’s tickets.

Popcorn ready: Rivera said he’d have popcorn in one hand and a pen ready to take notes in the other hand Monday night while watching the Saints-Seahawks game.

The Panthers coach said he would stay up Monday and not wait on the coaches’ film to see what New Orleans does against Seattle on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

“It’s a different perspective,” Rivera said. “It’s interesting, believe it or not, listening to what’s said, especially by the commentators, because the expert analysts will come up with something. The one thing is we have the TV copies. I like to listen to TV copies because I like to hear to what they do say. Sometimes they might say something that might catch your attention.”

Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden call Monday night games for ESPN. Gruden is a former Super Bowl-winning coach, and Rivera said he has a good rapport with Gruden and enjoys listening to him call games.

“It’s funny because we talk the same kind of language,” Rivera said. “Just listening to him, he always says a few things that catch your attention. Listening to him talk about offenses, there’s always something good.”

Injury update: Rivera expects three starters and one key contributor back on practice field Wednesday after the four missed the Tampa Bay game.

Defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, linebacker Chase Blackburn and No.2 tight end Ben Hartsock are expected to return to practice this week.

Johnson has missed the past two games with a knee sprain, but he tweeted after Sunday’s win that he will be there “suited and booted” for New Orleans. Williams missed the Tampa Bay game with a quad contusion suffered against Miami, and Blackburn sat out a third game with a foot injury.

Rookie A.J. Klein has played well in place of Blackburn, and he had three tackles for losses against the Bucs on Sunday. Rivera gave no indication of what he’ll do at the weakside linebacker spot once Blackburn returns.

“We’ll see. We’re not giving anything to anybody, everybody’s earning they deserve,” Rivera said. “And I know Chase was playing very well before he got hurt too so it’s not like we’re going to substitute a guy that has no stats or hasn’t done well. We’re going to play the guys that are going to give us the best opportunity to win football games.”

Rivera was less optimistic about right guard Chris Scott, who’s missed the past four games with a knee sprain. He called Scott “up in the air” to return this week.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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