It is the final weekend of the NFL regular season and, with division titles, seedings and playoff spots on the line, there is plenty on the line for several teams.
One is the Carolina Panthers.
Last week the Panthers stunned the New Orleans Saints in what felt like a team-defining win, but, their work isn’t done. Not even close. It is the nature of attainment; after climbing one mountaintop there is always another to scale.
This week’s hurdle is the Atlanta Falcons, at the Georgia Dome.
The Panthers have to win to secure the NFC South title and a first-round bye.
It is vital; it would allow top receiver Steve Smith an extra week to nurse his knee, and seven more days for Cam Newton’s ankle to clear up. And, for an offence that has struggled against top-end defences recently, those two details are crucial.
It won’t be easy, though.
The Falcons – 13-3 last season but now 4-11 – are still a decent football team, as they showed in their fight on Monday against the San Francisco 49ers. And, they will be up for it as they seek to give retiring legend Tony Gonzalez a fairytale sending off.
From my point of view, even if home-field advantage is not a guarantee in the playoffs, it is vital for the Panthers if they are to have any chance of reaching, and perhaps winning the Super Bowl.
I believe they can do it; Newton is now an elite quarterback, Luke Kuechly a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the team unified.
With the young talent they have, one Super Bowl could potentially open the gates for a dynasty.
But, the Panthers have to seize the moment now; and that starts with sealing the NFC’s second seed, because at this point in their development, the Panthers remain a team that needs as much favour as it can get, if they are to win it all.
Talking dynasties, I feel similarly about the Seattle Seahawks. Even more than the Panthers, Seattle are a complete team with a superb quarterback (Russell Wilson) a go-to running back (Marshawn Lynch) and a brutal defence.
Their loss to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend did give the rest of the division needed hope that Seattle can be beaten at CenturyLink Field (that is where the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl will go through). Nevertheless, the Seahawks remain heavy favourites to reach the Super Bowl.
At this moment the smart money is on a Seattle–Denver Broncos Super Bowl, where the old master (Peyton Manning) will go up against the young prince (Wilson).
The rest of the pack
It is a tragedy the Arizona Cardinals will not make the playoffs, something I wrote about previously (#Thoughts: The NFL Race). They are a post-season worthy side – great coach, solid defence, steady offence and a talented quarterback (Carson Palmer) that is reborn.
I feel they will beat the 49ers on Sunday, but the Saints will beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home and thus eliminate Arizona.
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The other drama in the NFC this weekend is the two winner-takes-all showdowns – Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears.
You have to feel for fans of the Cowboys. There seems to be little accountability there, the same mistakes are repeated over and over. Still, even though enigmatic quarterback Tony Romo has usually been at the heart of them, the Cowboys will miss him. He is still their best chance in a must-win game and if the Cowboys don’t make the playoffs – for a fourth year in a row – you have to wonder if the axe will finally start to fall.
In the other division title decider, Bears coach Marc Trestman has stuck to his guns by favouring Jay Cutler at quarterback over back-up sensation Josh McCown. The problem is the Bears were blown away by the Eagles last week and Cutler is still to prove he is a top-level quarterback.
This is another chance for him, of course, but with Aaron Rodgers returning for the Packers you favour Green Bay to win.
This is actually an interesting gauge match for the Packers. Rodgers’ return changes the whole Green Bay team, and this match-up against the Bear will gauge whether the Packers can be a dark-horse for the Super Bowl, as they were in 2010.
My projected NFC playoff seeds
The AFC is the Super Bowl dark horse in the sense that it isn’t as competitive as the NFC this year but it has champions in Peyton Manning and his Broncos and the New England Patriots – champions who’ve done all it before and, perhaps crucially, who might not be as beaten up as their NFC counterparts.
Losing Von Miller is a massive blow for the Broncos. Although they went 6-0 without him at the start of the season while he was serving a suspension, he is their defensive quarterback. Nevertheless, Manning is playing at such a godly level you feel he can overcome any setback – which he has most of the time this season.
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The New England Patriots will be the AFC’s second seed. They have the peerless Tom Brady, who like Manning has adapted and thrived this season. However, in a direct shootout, in Denver, I would still have to go with the Broncos.
As far as this final weekend is concerned, I feel the Cincinnati Bengals will beat the Baltimore Ravens. It is in fact a minor miracle the Ravens are even in contention for a playoff place after dismantling their championship-winning team. Even so, last week’s 41-7 loss to the Patriots showed how far off the top they’ve fallen and the Bengals, who’ve put up 40 points in each of their last four home games, should be too strong.
The Ravens’ likely ruin gives the Miami Dolphins a chance to make it into the playoffs for the first time since 2008. However, their opponents, the New York Jets, want to finish the season at 8-8. And, against the Cleveland Browns last week, rookie quarterback Geno Smith showed tremendously positive signs with his throwing and natural athleticism.
More than any other sport, the NFL is a one-game sport - one game can change everything. The Jets will be confident and, hungry, going up against a banged-up quarterback in Ryan Tannehill.
That leaves the road open for the San Diego Chargers. They face the Kansas City Chiefs who will be resting starters – a perfect opportunity. With Phillip Rivers playing the way he has been (good enough to be rated above Tom Brady... ), he should be able to lead the Chargers to a victory I feel will see them into the Promised land – the NFL Playoffs.
My projected AFC playoff seeds
Whatever happens, it should be a wonderful regular season finale.