Panthers in playoff conversation for a change

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Seventy-one percent of those that participated in a Charlotte Observer poll late last week said the Carolina Panthers will be a playoff team this season.

Funny, 83 percent of those that participated in a poll for the newspaper after the team's 0-2 start said coach Ron Rivera should be fired.

The players didn't get caught up in the fire Rivera talk.

And they're not getting caught up in the playoff talk.

"I can look ahead to the Atlanta Falcons," running back DeAngelo Williams said of Carolina's next opponent after Thursday night's 31-13 victory at Tampa Bay. "Anything after that, I can't see."

Smart. It's way too early to talk playoffs, particularly for a team that hasn't seen them since 2008.

But with three straight wins and four in the last five games the Panthers (4-3) definitely deserve to be in the conversation as a playoff possibility.

If the NFC playoffs started today, the divisions winners would be New Orleans in the South, Seattle (6-1) in the West, Green Bay (5-2) in the North and Dallas (4-4) in the East.

The two wild cards would be San Francisco (6-2) and Detroit (5-3).

Carolina would be a half game out behind Detroit in the No. 7 spot, owning the tie-breaker over the Chicago Bears (4-3). Arizona (4-4) and St. Louis (3-4) are next in line.

The good news for the Panthers is they control their playoff chances, something they couldn't say the past three seasons after playing seven games. They were 1-6 a year ago, 2-5 in 2011 and 1-6 in 2010.

At 1-0 in the South after beating the Buccaneers, they still have a chance to win the division with five games remaining, including two against leader New Orleans.

First up is Atlanta, 2-5, after losing for the fourth time in the last five games on Sunday at Arizona. If the Panthers can get past the Falcons the playoff talk will increase.

Stewart update: Monday is a day of reckoning for running back Jonathan Stewart.

If the team's second-all-time leading rusher successfully goes through what Rivera has called a "hard" practice the plan is to activate him off the physically unable to perform list in time to face Atlanta.

Stewart sat out the first seven games rehabilitating from offseason surgery on his right ankle. He practiced for the first time since November on Tuesday.

Carolina has 21 days from then to activate him, and Rivera has said that likely will be for the Falcons.