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There's promise of Newton in 2012

The Panthers didn't deliver a playoff appearance this season, but they delivered fun.

Considering where the franchise was a year ago, that's more than enough.

It's tough not to play the what-if game - even coach Ron Rivera has admitted thinking about how different things could be if he could change a handful of plays - but more than eight months before next season will start, there's an excitement about what could be.

If you're in St. Louis or Tampa, Fla., or Minnesota, you're wondering how it gets better.

Around here, you're wondering what Cam Newton can do next season.

Until then, there's Week 17.

CAROLINA at NEW ORLEANS: It might depend on how much Drew Brees plays. Saints 27, Panthers 24.

WASHINGTON at PHILADELPHIA: The Eagles are finally as good as they were expected to be. There are two words for that - too late. Eagles 31, Redskins 17.

CHICAGO at MINNESOTA: From the sidelines at Marvin Ridge High to quarterbacking the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on a Sunday night, the Josh McCown story is a pretty good one. Sounds like a possible Brad Pitt project. Bears 24, Vikings 17.

BUFFALO at NEW ENGLAND: The Patriots have won 11 straight December games. Sure, the calendar flips to January on Sunday, but some habits are tough to break. Patriots 31, Bills 13.

SAN FRANCISCO at ST. LOUIS: The good, the bad and not much in between. 49ers 36, Rams 13.

DETROIT at GREEN BAY: Ndamukong Suh might get carried away on the field once in a while, but off the field, he donated $2.6 million this year to the University of Nebraska.

That ranks sixth among athletes and celebrities in terms of their public charitable giving, according to a group that tracks such things. Packers 31, Lions 21.

NEW YORK JETS at MIAMI: Time to put the Jets out of their misery. Dolphins 24, Jets 16.

INDIANAPOLIS at JACKSONVILLE: Andrew Luck's future hangs in the balance. Hope he likes Indianapolis. Jags 21, Colts 17.

TENNESSEE at HOUSTON: Sorry, but after consecutive Texans losses I can't resist - Houston, you have a problem. Maybe more than one. Titans 27, Texans 24.

PITTSBURGH at CLEVELAND: Steelers playing to get the first playoff weekend off. The Browns already have the next several months off after this. Steelers 24, Browns 7.

BALTIMORE at CINCINNATI: Here's something you don't often hear - the Bengals have a big game in January. Ravens 16, Bengals 13.

SEATTLE at ARIZONA: Loser gets a trip to play the Panthers in Charlotte next season. Cardinals 28, Seahawks 26.

TAMPA BAY at ATLANTA: The Falcons get the rare second bye week. Falcons 34, Bucs 6.

SAN DIEGO at OAKLAND: Just the fact that the Raiders are still alive in various playoff scenarios on the last Sunday of the regular season is an achievement for coach Hue Jackson.

It doesn't say much for the AFC West but, to borrow the most overused cliché of recent years, it is what it is. Raiders 29, Chargers 27.

KANSAS CITY at DENVER: Timmy Touchdown takes the Broncos to the playoffs while football snobs cringe. Broncos 20, Chiefs 17.

DALLAS at NEW YORK GIANTS: Cowboys win and they're in. Giants win and they're in.

Clean as a street fight. Giants 24, Cowboys 21.

Last week: 10-6

Season: 146-70

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