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Panthers column: Showdown for the NFC South

CHARLOTTE — Carolina has the opportunity next week to pull off what few thought was possible. The Panthers did what they had to do Sunday against Cleveland, and they got the help they needed from Atlanta.

The Falcons defeated the Saints, 30-14. That, coupled with the Panthers’ 17-13 win, put Carolina (6-8-1) a half-game ahead of Atlanta (6-9) in the race for the NFC South championship and the division’s spot in the playoffs.

“We’ve got a great opportunity to go down to Atlanta and get a win to make the playoffs,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “I’m sure they’re probably thinking the same thing, but our mentality now is to be in the playoffs starting this week.

“You win, and you keep moving, and you lose, and the season is over,” continued Kuechly. “So our mentality is to go down there, play tough and come out with a win.”

The division has been a punchline throughout the season, and it’s deserved. Side effects of thinking about NFC South football may include head shaking, arm raising, shoulder shrugging, drink spilling, yelling, faceplaming and saying to yourself, “Oh well,” followed by a sense of adventure just to see what the teams do next.

The football is nowhere near good, but that doesn’t mean these last few weeks have not had their share of drama. Three teams, all guaranteed to finish without a winning record, went into the penultimate week of the regular season with a chance to win the division title.

Atlanta and Carolina are the only teams left in the fight.

“You just have to win the day,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “You can’t look back at what you’ve done. You can’t look forward at what’s up ahead. You just have to seize each and every moment. Carpe diem. Make the most of each and every opportunity you get.”

The scenario breaks down like this: Carolina makes the playoffs with a win or a tie, and Atlanta makes it with a win. New Orleans (6-9) cannot get into the postseason.

To the Panthers’ credit, they had to go through this with Newton — the star quarterback — going through a horrific car accident and coming away with a pair of transverse process fractures in his lower back. The injury parked him on the sideline last week.

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson started in place of Newton against Tampa Bay. He got the job done and then some in a 19-17 win.

A few hours before kickoff Sunday, the Panthers made official what many already knew — Newton was resuming his duties as the starting quarterback.

He scrambled for a 4-yard gain on the Panthers’ second play. He had a two-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper bootleg run to the right in the first half.

Passing, he was 18 of 31 with an ill-advised throw that led to an interception and a season-saving, game-winning touchdown pass to Jonathan Stewart.

It was just another day in the NFC South.

Now, Carolina holds its future in the palm of its hand. Despite tripping over itself and the many laughable moments this season, the 2014 Panthers have a chance to make franchise history. With a victory, they can qualify for the playoffs for the second straight season.

“It’s definitely not how we planned it, but it’s what we’re working toward,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “In spite of the things we’ve gone through, the situations we have been in, we have put ourselves in position. Well, now it all comes down to one game and that is all we can ask for, to be in that situation.

“…I’m pleased with the fact that we have an opportunity. I look forward to that opportunity next Sunday to see how things go,” concluded Rivera.

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