Published 12:00 am Friday, December 20, 2013

CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton and the Panthers can clinch their first playoff appearance since 2008 by winning either of their final two games.
But the Panthers also know the benefit of winning both.
If Carolina (10-4) can beat New Orleans at home Sunday and Atlanta on the road the following week, the Panthers would win the NFC South and secure the No. 2 seed, which means a first-round bye and at least one playoff game at home.
Carolina is 6-1 at home.
For now, the team’s focus is on the Saints and snapping the five-year playoff drought.
“We’re looking at it as, ‘Why not us,’” Newton says. “. If we do what we have to do, if we win this game, we have our confirmation of being in the playoffs.”
Even if the Panthers lose Sunday, they can still qualify for the playoffs as a wild card by beating Atlanta in Week 17.
However, that would likely mean having to win three road games to reach the Super Bowl as the fifth or sixth seed. That’s been done before, but certainly not the path of least resistance, particularly with how difficult it is to play at Seattle and New Orleans. The Seahawks are 6-0 at home; the Saints 7-0.
“I really do believe they understand (the magnitude),” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of his players. “One of the things I told them, we’ve gone through it every week. In our situation and circumstances, with San Francisco the way they are, with Arizona the way they are, and with the situation with the Saints, every game has been important.”
Said Newton: “Guys are going to be hungry to play this game.”
Rivera said it gives him heartburn to think the Panthers have won 10 games and still could wind up sitting at home for the playoffs if they stumble and lose their final two games.
That’s because the NFC is so top heavy.
Seattle (12-2) has already clinched a playoff spot, while fellow NFC West foes San Francisco (10-4) and Arizona (9-5) could still move ahead of Carolina in the playoff hunt.
“Every game is important and that’s the way you have to approach it,” Rivera sad. “We could have lost any of the games we’ve played and been in dire straits, and we haven’t. I really do think they understand.”
The Panthers say that their focus is where it has always been — on its next opponent — and not on the prize at the end of the line.
Rivera’s mantra all season has been the next opponent is the biggest game because it’s the next game.
“As it stands right now, we’re not in the playoffs,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “As a team we understand that, and we know that we control our own destiny. That’s the good part about it. We’re not sitting back like some of these other teams waiting on somebody else to lose and waiting on this happen.
“We know if we go out and take care of business as a team and we get done what we’re supposed to get done then none of that matters.”
On the other side of the ball, the Saints’ playoff scenario is much simpler.
If they beat the Panthers on Sunday they clinch the NFC South and can do no worse than the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Should they lose Sunday they could also secure a playoff spot if the Cardinals lose to Seattle.
“We understand the importance of it,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “Obviously your number one goal every year is to win your division, first and foremost, and we have the opportunity to do that this weekend. It’s going to take a great team effort and it’s going to take our best performance in order to get it done. That and then obviously the two-seed that comes along with that is significant
“You’re guaranteed at least one home game and that’s always what you strive for is just to be able to have that home-field advantage.”