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Panthers' path to the playoffs is now clear

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are only half a game out of the NFC South lead with three games to go thanks to Atlanta's 43-37 loss at Green Bay on Monday night.

For a team that on Sunday won for the first time in eight games, you can't ask for much more.

For the Panthers (4-8-1) to repeat as division champions for the first time in team history, this is the clearest path:

  • Win out against Tampa Bay (2-11), Cleveland (7-6) and Atlanta (5-8), the first two at home.

  • Hope New Orleans (5-8) loses one of its final three games against Chicago, Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

That would give Carolina the division with a 7-8-1 record and a home playoff game. The best record New Orleans or Atlanta could have under that scenario is 7-9.

There also is a scenario where the Panthers win the division at 6-9-1 if neither the Falcons nor Saints win more than one of their final three games. But that's a longshot, and perhaps asking too much even in a season where the unexpected has happened in the South.

ESPN's playoff machine has the Panthers winning under only one scenario -- the team with the best defense.

Coach Ron Rivera is focused on only one thing: Not overlooking Tampa on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

While it's hard to imagine a team that hadn't won in two months before Sunday's 41-10 victory over New Orleans overlooking anybody, Rivera isn't taking any chances.

He began citing examples of upsets during Monday's team meeting. He didn't have to look hard to find a good one.

"There was a team last week that played a team they weren't supposed to beat. Beat them," Rivera said. "And then they were playing a team they were a 10-point favorite over and lost to them.

"I've already talked about that. The players heard my message and they're going to hear my message all week. We're not going to look at who we play, we're going to play. And that's the bottom line."

Rivera was referring to New Orleans, which beat Pittsburgh on the road and then got blown out by a Carolina team that began the week as a 10-point underdog and on a seven-game winless streak.

"If this doesn't prove to you any team in the NFL can beat any team in the NFL on any Sunday, then you're not paying attention," said Rivera, sounding like a preacher delivering a sermon to his congregation. "That will be emphasized."

The Panthers opened the season with a 20-14 victory over the Buccaneers without quarterback Cam Newton, who was recovering from fractured ribs.

Newton is coming off a season-best performance in which he threw for three touchdowns and ran for another. There are reasons to be confident heading into this one.

But the first pick of the 2011 draft isn't getting any more excited about one win than Rivera.

"Of course I'm happy right now," Newton finally admitted Sunday with a stoic look. "But yet we've still got our work cut out for us. There are a lot of things that have to work our way."

Atlanta losing to Green Bay, as expected, was one of those things. Now the Panthers have to take care of their own business and not look ahead as Newton and Rivera indicated the team may have done to get in this situation.

"The emphasis has to be don't look at who we play, don't look at the end of the race," Rivera said. "Run the race and play."

To be in the race with four wins, the Panthers really couldn't ask for much more.