Newspaper article International New York Times

Under .500 and Overjoyed, Carolina Panthers Are Headed to the Playoffs

Newspaper article International New York Times

Under .500 and Overjoyed, Carolina Panthers Are Headed to the Playoffs

Article excerpt

The Panthers earned the N.F.L.'s 12th and final playoff spot with a win over Atlanta, finishing the regular season at 7-8-1.

The N.F.L.'s 12th and final playoff berth has been claimed, even though purists might have preferred an odd number of tournament teams over a field tainted by a division champion with a losing record.

Somebody had to carry the tattered banner of the National Football Conference South, and it will be Carolina. The Panthers, who required a perfect December just to climb within sniffing distance of .500, finished the regular season at 7-8-1 after pounding the host Atlanta Falcons, 34-3, on Sunday.

By winning a division that also included one member contending for the dubious distinction of the league's biggest bust (New Orleans) and another that burrowed to the front of the draft line (Tampa Bay), the Panthers strolled blissfully into a home game next weekend against backsliding Arizona.

As the N.F.C. South's foursome wallowed through the season, going 10-29-1 against teams outside the division, a nationwide debate broke out on whether the postseason format needed amending. A topic on Atlanta sports talk radio was whether Falcons devotees should hope for losses to hasten their fade from playoff candidacy, possibly setting off coaching and front-office changes and delivering a more desirable draft position.

Ron Rivera, the Panthers' coach, offered no apologies for entering the postseason with home-field status and the league's 20th- best mark.

"The beautiful thing is, the record doesn't matter," Rivera said, adding, "I'm not concerned about what the record says because right now everybody is even."

Perhaps only Seattle, with six straight victories, is hotter, and even the Seahawks' vaunted defense would admire the way Carolina is smothering opponents. The Panthers' defense has yielded 43 points in the last four games, and it easily outscored the Falcons' offense with two touchdowns. …

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