Panthers likely need to win out to win South

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- To the reader who asked about tiebreaker scenarios for the Carolina Panthers and forced this English major to break out his calculator, here you go.

The Panthers and New Orleans Saints are tied at 9-3 heading into Sunday night's NFC South game at the Louisiana Superdome. They could be tied at 12-4 at the end of the regular season.

Outside of making the playoffs, that wouldn't be great for Carolina.

Based on all the scenarios, and assuming these teams win the games they will be favored to over the next four weeks, the division could be decided by the fourth tie-breaker -- best record in the NFC.

The Panthers already have two losses in the NFC against Seattle and Arizona. Assuming a home-and-home split of two games with New Orleans over the next three weeks, that would leave them 9-3 in the conference.

New Orleans' only NFC loss was Sunday night's 34-7 shellacking to Seattle. The Saints would be 10-2 if they split with Carolina and win out.

That would mean the division title and a first-round bye for New Orleans, and a first-round road playoff game for Carolina. That would mean winning three road playoff games for the Panthers to reach the Super Bowl.

If you're wondering why I jumped to the fourth tiebreaker, it's simple. A split and winning out would mean a wash in the first tiebreaker, head to head. A split and winning out also would mean a tie in the division, the second tiebreaker, at 4-1.

A split and winning out also would mean both teams are 10-4 against common opponents, the third tiebreaker.

It's that tight. The rest of the schedule for both teams only magnifies that. After traveling to New Orleans, the Panthers are at home against the New York Jets (5-7), New Orleans (9-3) and at Atlanta (3-9). Their opponents have a cumulative record of 26-22.

After the Panthers, the Saints are at St. Louis (5-7), at Carolina (9-3) and at home against Tampa Bay (3-9). Their opponents have a cumulative record of 26-22.

Coach Ron Rivera has looked at all the scenarios. He understands Carolina's best path to the division title and a home playoff game is a sweep against New Orleans.

In other words, win out to extend the league's best winning streak from eight to 12.

Don't count on upsets.

"The biggest thing as we talked about to the players is taking care of our business,” Rivera said. “That is if we focus in on each game one game at a time, win each game one game at a time, we give ourselves that opportunity. I most certainly am aware of that.”