Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Will the Carolina Panthers survive their 1-5 start? Uh, no

After a horrible 1-5 start, the Panthers have won three out of four, capped by Thursday night's 23-20 victory over the Saints.

The run has prompted some talk about a possible late playoff push for the Panthers, who were 15-1 and made the Super Bowl last season.

Despite their 4-6 record, the Panthers have a respectable point differential of minus-2, stand in the top 12 in many computer rankings and have a big-play quarterback in Cam Newton and the league's third-best defense against the run. They are two games out of first place in the NFC South with six to play.

So do they have a chance to make the playoffs?

Not really.

The Upshot's Playoff Simulator has been newly rolled out for the 2016 season. Before Thursday's game, it gave Carolina only a 4 percent chance of making the playoffs. After the big win? Its chance increased, to 5 percent. Fivethirtyeight.com's forecast is slightly more bullish, putting the Panthers' chance at 11 percent.

Four of the Panthers' six remaining games seem winnable: home against the Chargers and Falcons, and away to the Redskins and Bucs. If they sweep those games, the Upshot gives them a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs, a real shot.

But though you can make a case for the Panthers winning any one of those games, it is hard to see them winning all four. The road games in particular look tough.

More serious trouble comes from the other two games, which are the next two on the schedule: visits to the 7-2 Raiders and 6-2-1 Seahawks. Even with a 4-0 sweep of the winnable games, losing both of those would drop the Panthers right back to a 12 percent chance of a playoff berth, at least according to the Upshot model.

The Panthers' problems are compounded by injuries. On Thursday night, the team lost center Ryan Kalil, defensive end Mario Addison and cornerback Leonard Johnson. Most prominently, its star linebacker and leader, Luke Kuechly, left the field in tears with a concussion after taking a hit. Kuechly also suffered a concussion at the beginning of last season.

The Panthers deserve credit for fighting back after their abysmal start. They could, in theory, go 5-1 and run down the division-leading Falcons. But you would not want to bet on it.

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