It’s been an odd year for the Carolina Panthers. The star QB had a baseball injury, the star WR punched out his teammate in practice and was suspended, the star RB tied a franchise record for TDs but isn’t allowed to play full-time. The Panthers are undefeated at home and tied for the best record with two weeks to play yet may not make the playoffs. It’s been that kind of season.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme got hurt in the third week of the 2007 season and missed the rest of the year with a sore elbow. He ended up getting elbow ligament replacement surgery, more commonly known as Tommy John surgery. It’s named after the baseball pitcher who was the first person to have the procedure done back in the mid 1970s. Since then thousands have been done on pitchers while only a handful have been done on pro football players. The Panthers were 5-8 in games last year when someone other than Delhomme started. This year the team is 11-3.
Wide receiver Steve Smith is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and on the short list for best wideout in the game. He’s also never going to win Miss Congeniality. In 2002, Smith was thrown in jail for beating up Anthony Bright, who was on the practice squad. This year, he sucker punched teammate Ken Lucas during practice and broke his nose. The Panthers suspended Smith for two games (undoubtedly saving their season in the process). Since he returned, Smith has 1,240 yards receiving, which is the third-highest total in the league. He’s averaging over 100 yards per game and is a threat every time he puts his hands on the ball to score a touchdown.
Running back DeAngelo Williams finished the 2007 season strong, After being a backup most of the season in the final three games of the year he rushed for 242 yards and three touchdowns. The Panthers released DeShaun Foster but then turned around and drafted a running back on the first round. Jonathan Stewart saw most of the action early in 2008 but starting in Week 7, Williams has scored a touchdown in eight straight weeks, including a four-TD game against the Packers. He has 16 touchdowns on the season, tying Muhsin Muhammad’s franchise mark but still splits carries with Stewart. In last week’s win over Denver, Williams had only 12 carries, although he did miss some time in the third quarter due to injury.
But as wacky as the individual performances have been, the team record and playoff situation is downright crazy.
Currently, the Panthers sit at 11-3 and have a two-game lead over the Bucs and Falcons in the NFC South. Carolina is tied with the New York Giants for the best record in the conference and will gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they win Sunday night’s game against the Giants in the Meadowlands. Okay, nothing crazy there. The really odd part is that with two games left in the regular season the Panthers could miss the playoffs completely.
If Carolina loses its last two games and Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Dallas win out, the Panthers will miss the playoffs. In that scenario, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta would each be tied with an 11-5 mark in the NFC South.
Here are the tiebreaking procedures if three or more teams tie for the division lead:
(Note: If two clubs remain tied after third or other clubs are eliminated during any step, tie breaker reverts to step 1 of the two-club format).
1. Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games among the clubs).
2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division.
3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games.
4. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
5. Strength of victory.
6. Strength of schedule.
7. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
8. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
9. Best net points in common games.
10. Best net points in all games.
11. Best net touchdowns in all games.
12. Coin toss
The three teams would have each split their head-to-head matchups, with each team finishing 2-2 against the others. So we move on to the second tie breaker, division record. Again, each of the three teams would be tied at 3-3 in the division and we move on to the third tie breaker, record in common games. Each team had 14 similar opponents. The Panthers would split their games against Arizona and the Giants, the Bucs beat Seattle and lost to Dallas and the Falcons lost to the Eagles and would have beaten the Rams. This means we have to move to the fourth tie-breaking scenario for our NFC South winner.
The Panthers would lose on conference record as they would finish 7-5 if they lose their final two games while the Bucs and Falcons would be 8-4. And that would leave Carolina fighting for the Wild Card. And once again, a 7-5 conference record would lose out, as Dallas would finish 8-4 in the NFC.
Of course, there is only one scenario in which the Panthers miss the playoffs. The way the schedules are laid out, it’s easier for that one shot to happen than it mathematically should. The Panthers have to play their final two games on the road, where they are just 3-3. The Giants have everything to play for this week and New Orleans is far from a pushover plus it will be looking to avenge a Week 7 thumping by Carolina.
The Bucs have the easiest road, with home games against the Chargers and Raiders, two teams with sub .500 records that will have to travel cross-country for the game. The Cowboys have a tough path, but at least will be playing at home against the Ravens before finishing up against an Eagles team that has fattened up in recent weeks against poor squads.
The Panthers best shot may be the Falcons, who have to travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings. With a win against Atlanta, Minnesota clinches the NFC North and if the Vikings win out, they have the possibility of finishing as the #2 seed, as they would hold the tiebreaker against either the Panthers or the Giants. But before Carolina starts to feel good about that, Minnesota will play against Michael Turner and Atlanta’s rushing game without big defensive tackle Pat Williams, who has a broken bone in his right shoulder and will miss the rest of the regular season.
At least the Panthers have the comfort of playing the late game on Sunday and will know how all of their foes did before they take the field against the Giants. And with the Cowboys playing on Saturday, the Panthers could have a playoff spot clinched before Sunday even begins.