Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ realistic playoff chances sit between 40 and 10 percent entering Titans game

The Carolina Panthers will hit their season’s midpoint Sunday afternoon, and whether they are 5-3 or 4-4 at that point will be significant.

Let’s take a look at the final eight games on the Panthers’ schedule after they play Tennessee (4-4) on Sunday at 1 p.m. in their first home game in four weeks.

Here are those final eight games, in order, with the current record of each team in parentheses and home games capitalized. Note that the Panthers alternate home and road games every week for the rest of the season:

  • At Green Bay (7-1)
  • Atlanta (1-7)
  • At New Orleans (7-1)
  • Washington (1-7)
  • At Atlanta (1-7)
  • Seattle (6-2)
  • At Indianapolis (5-2)
  • New Orleans (7-1)

If the Panthers make it to the halfway point at 5-3, I think their chance at sneaking into a playoff wild-card berth is 40 percent.

They have three games against one-win teams left, after all. And even though they traditionally have trouble playing Atlanta on the road, you’ve got to figure they could win all three of those, go at least 1-4 in their five tougher games and end up 9-7; teams with 9-7 records occasionally slip into the NFL playoffs.

But if the Panthers end up 4-4 with a loss to Tennessee? Then it’s hard to see them making the postseason. I’d put the odds at 10 percent in that case.

A 5-3 record in the final eight games would be an absolute necessity then, and that second-half schedule doesn’t lend itself to 5-3. Two games against New Orleans?! Three more against likely playoff teams Green Bay, Seattle and Indianapolis?! That’s difficult.

It’s just one more way of saying how important Sunday will be for the Panthers. Tennessee is mediocre. The Panthers were terrible last week in a 51-13 loss to San Francisco and quite good during a four-game win streak. Which Carolina team shows up Sunday will set the tone for the rest of the season.

Here are some random stats I find interesting about Sunday’s game:

Tennessee has won six straight games against the NFC.

Carolina is 31st in the NFL in rush defense per carry. The Panthers’ D allows 4.98 yards per carry, which is really bad.

CLT_PANTHERS_BUCS_06.JPG
THe Carolina Panthers are second in the NFL in total sacks (30), including this one by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy against Tampa Bay quarterback James Winston. But the Panthers’ run defense has been suspect. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

On the other hand, the Panthers are second in the NFL in sacks, with 30.

In 2015, the Panthers last played Tennessee. Of the 22 offensive and defensive starters for Carolina that day, only three will be starters against the Titans: Offensive guard Trai Turner, tight end Greg Olsen and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. In four years, that’s an 87.5 percent turnover. That’s the “Not For Long” NFL for you right there.

The Panthers have to get some more big passing plays on offense behind quarterback Kyle Allen, who will start his sixth straight game Sunday in place of the injured Cam Newton. They have only 16 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season, which is tied for 29th in the NFL in that category. Only Washington, Miami and the New York Jets are worse.

Prediction time. I moved to 5-2 last week after picking Carolina to lose to San Francisco. This week I think the Panthers will have just enough to bounce back from that 38-point loss. My pick: Carolina 23, Tennessee 20.

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