While the Carolina Panthers may have been able to defeat the Giants this past weekend to move to 14-0, the win did not come easily. Eli Manning and the Giants led a four-touchdown comeback, with their last score being a pass to Odell Beckham Jr. with 1:46 left in the game. So maybe Carolina's defense was not able to close out the game, but Cam Newton ultimately marched 49 yards in 8 plays to set up Graham Gano's game winning field goal. With two games left in the regular season, the Panthers only need to beat the Falcons on the road next week and then the Buccaneers at home in Week 17 for an undefeated regular season. So let's take a look at these next two games, as well as any potential playoff teams capable of handing the Panthers their first loss of the season.
Falcons: At this point in the season, the Falcons must win their final two games just to have a chance at a spot in the playoffs. Unfortunately for Falcons fans, Atlanta has lost their last five games against the Panthers over the course of three different seasons, where their most recent matchup resulted in a 38-0 loss for the Falcons just two weeks ago. Even though the Panthers defense allowed 38 points to the Saints the week before, and 35 points to the Giants a week later, this defense managed to play to its full potential against the Falcons. Next week's key matchup will be Panthers cornerback Josh Norman versus star wide receiver Julio Jones, where in their last matchup against one another, Julio Jones caught seven passes for 88 yards but no touchdowns. In two of the last three games where teams have been able to score a lot of points against the Panthers, the offenses were able to get over the top of the Panthers secondary for a couple of big plays. The Falcons just don't seem like they have it in them, so I predict another win for the Panthers next week.
Prediction: Panthers over Falcons
Buccaneers: Now that the Bucs have no chance of making the playoffs, Tampa Bay gains nothing from beating the Panthers in the last game of the season other than a sense of pride; in fact, it would be more advantageous for Tampa to intentionally lose this game in an effort to gain a better position in the draft. If Tampa loses another game, it's likely that they would sneak into the top 10 of the 2016 NFL Draft. Had this game taken place several weeks earlier when Jameis Winston became more comfortable in the pocket, Mike Evans had returned to full health, and Doug Martin emerged as Pro Bowl caliber running back once again, the Bucs had a legitimate shot at giving the Panthers their first loss. More importantly, deep threats Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson would give the Panthers secondary fits all game. Yet since this is not the case, the Panthers will become the third team in the Super Bowl era to by undefeated by the end of the regular season.
Prediction: Panthers over Buccaneers
Seahawks: With the Seahawks basically locked in as the fifth seed in the playoffs, a weak NFC East team as the fourth seed, and a likely win by the third seeded Packers in the first round of the playoffs, a Seahawks-Panthers matchup is almost inevitable. Sure, there are a lot of assumptions that must be made to get to this point, but the odds are in favor of this rematch from last year's Divisional Round taking place once more. Even with running backs Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls injured, the Seahawks are one of the hottest teams in football, with quarterback Russell Wilson throwing for 19 touchdowns and no picks in his last 5 games. The Seahawks secondary is good enough to slow down the Panthers offense as they did last year in the playoffs, but the Seahawks are also very talented when it comes to throwing the deep ball (Wilson is 13 of 15 with a passer rating of 125.6 when on passes 31 yards or longer). Lastly, Lynch is expected to make his return come playoff time, so don't be shocked when the Seahawks defeat the Panthers in the Divisional Round for the second year in a row.
Prediction: Seahawks over Panthers