Only one NFL team has gone 15-0 in the regular season, the 2007 Patriots. With a victory at Atlanta on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers can match that feat.
What they don’t want to do is completely replicate what New England did that season. Yes, the Panthers want their second trip to the Super Bowl. They simply want a different outcome than what New England met, losing to the Giants in the big game.
For now, though, there’s little to know looking ahead for Ron Rivera‘s team. Beat the Falcons (7-7) and they secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, something they also could get even with a loss if Arizona falls to Green Bay.
Of course, then the Panthers wouldn’t be chasing perfection anymore.
“The biggest thing for us most certainly is to stay focused on what the task at hand is, and that is the next game we are going to play,” Rivera says.
“And we have talked about that tirelessly. Just getting the guys to understand we have to focus in on Atlanta, play this game and play to win, because there is so much at stake as far as this is concerned.
“The first seed is the biggest thing. The other thing is to get the guys to understand the primary goal is not to go undefeated. The primary goal is to try to win the Super Bowl. And we talk about that as well.
“Somebody will say, ‘Oh, if you go 19-0 you win the Super Bowl.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah it does, but let’s take it one game at a time. Let’s first get to the next game.’ So the next game is here and it’s an opportunity to take another step. But we have to go through Atlanta first.”
The Falcons, who ended a six-game slide with a win last week, naturally see it slightly different. They almost surely aren’t going anywhere, so …
“Of course, that’s one of the biggest things,” running back Devonta Freeman said of being motivated by handing Carolina a first defeat. “We all want to end it.”
The action began Thursday night with the Raiders’ 23-20 overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers in what might have been the final game ever in Oakland.
Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 31-yard field goal and the Raiders got a defensive stop to seal it.
Derek Carr threw a touchdown pass and led the winning overtime drive for the Raiders (7-8), who could be moving to the Los Angeles area after the season. It also made retiring Charles Woodson a winner in his final home game. Philip Rivers threw for 277 yards and a touchdown for the Chargers (4-11), also possibly headed to Los Angeles.
Washington (7-7) at Philadelphia (6-8), Saturday
New York Giants (6-8) at Minnesota (9-5)
To make it simple, if Washington beats Philadelphia, it wins the NFC East. Nothing, though, has been simple in that division.
Washington is 1-5 on the road, but Philly is only 3-4 at home.
Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson was released by Eagles coach Chip Kelly following the best season of his career, so knocking off Philly and getting a postseason berth at the same time would be sweet for him.
Kelly can’t seem to find a role for 2014 Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray. The running back had only two carries against Arizona last week.
Minnesota doesn’t even need a win Sunday night to get a wild card. A loss by Atlanta earlier or a win by Seattle does the job.
The Vikings’ chore was made easier by Odell Beckham Jr.‘s one-game suspension for violating NFL player safety rules in a loss to the Panthers.
Green Bay (10-4) at Arizona (12-2)
St. Louis (6-8) at Seattle (9-5)
Each of these teams except the Rams clinched postseason berths already. Seattle will be a wild card, and will be glad not to deal with St. Louis in the playoffs because the Rams play the Seahawks well and beat them in the opener.
But that was a different Seattle squad. Russell Wilson is the first quarterback in NFL history with three or more touchdown passes and zero interceptions in five straight games. Doug Baldwin is the third player with two or more TD catches in four straight games. Baldwin has 10 TDs in his past four games, tied for the most in a four-game span in league history.
The Packers will own the NFC North with a victory and a Minnesota defeat. They also could threaten Arizona’s hold on the second seed in the conference.
But that’s a major challenge: Arizona has won eight in a row, is the only team in the NFL with more touchdowns (52) than punts (51), and might be the NFL’s most balanced outfit.
The previous time the Packers played at Arizona was the 2009 wild-card game that the Cardinals won 51-45 in overtime, the highest-scoring postseason game in NFL history.
Houston (7-7) at Tennessee (3-11)
Indianapolis (6-8) at Miami (5-9)
The, uh, race for the AFC South crown, between a tortoise and a snail.
Houston will clinch with a win against a Tennessee team minus injured rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has had a pretty decent season despite the record. But the Texans also figure to go without starting QB Brian Hoyer (concussion).
What the Texans have is J.J. Watt and a defense that should be good enough to provide the difference. Watt needs 1½ sacks to join Hall of Famer Reggie White as the only players with 15 or more sacks in three of his first five NFL seasons.
Indianapolis never had lost at home to Houston until falling last week. The Colts have been damaged by injuries, but also by some awful play on both sides of the ball that has jeopardized coach Chuck Pagano‘s job.
Of note for the Colts: Adam Vinatieri needs one field goal to join Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson as the only players with 500 field goals. He needs nine points to extend his league record of 100-point seasons to 18.
Cincinnati (11-3) at Denver (10-4), Monday
Cleveland (3-11) at Kansas City (9-5)
The Chiefs’ sensational turnaround from 1-5 has them on the heels of the Broncos in the AFC West. Indeed, if Denver stumbles again — a strong possibility against AFC North leader Cincinnati — the division race could come down to the finale.
Kansas City would tie the franchise mark with a ninth straight victory. The defense is second to Carolina with 20 interceptions and tied for the NFL lead with four TD returns. KC also is plus-15 in turnover margin, trailing only the Panthers (plus-19).
Cleveland has lost eight of nine.
Denver again goes with Brock Osweiler at quarterback with Peyton Manning not yet healed from his slew of injuries. Too bad for the Broncos: Manning is 8-1 vs. Cincinnati. Coach Gary Kubiak is 5-0 against the Bengals, all with Houston.
Like the Broncos, the Bengals will start their backup quarterback, AJ McCarron, who won his first pro start last week at San Francisco.
Free safety Reggie Nelson‘s eight interceptions for Cincinnati are tied for the league lead and double his previous career high.
Pittsburgh (9-5) at Baltimore (4-10)
New England (12-2) at New York Jets (9-5)
While the Patriots are looking for a victory to grab home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the Jets and Steelers are in the midst of the wild-card race, along with Kansas City. A loss by either New York or Pittsburgh and a KC win gives the Chiefs at least a wild card. The Steelers, who have won 10 in a row in December, get in with a victory and a Jets loss.
Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown have sparked a virtually unstoppable Pittsburgh offense. Roethlisberger leads the NFL with six games of 350 yards passing. Brown has 50 career catches against Baltimore — most among active receivers in the regular season.
New York has taken four straight, but has not beaten a team with a winning record. The Jets tend to play the Patriots close before losing: Tom Brady is 22-6 vs. the Jets as a starter, with 42 TDs, 13 interceptions and 6,894 yards.
Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have combined for 165 catches, 2,191 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns, the most combined in Jets history. They rank first among NFL receiver tandems in receptions, second in yards and tied for first in TDs.
San Francisco (4-10) at Detroit (5-9)
The 49ers have won nine straight and 14 of 15 in this series, but have dropped four of their past five games this season. WR Anquan Boldin needs one reception to become the 13th player in NFL history with 1,000 catches.
Detroit has found an anchor for its defense in end Ezekiel Ansah, who has 13½ sacks, behind only Oakland’s Khalil Mack in the league.
Dallas (4-10) at Buffalo (6-8)
Two teams finishing off hugely disappointing seasons. A loss would assure the Cowboys’ worst finish since going 5-11 in 2002. They have QB Kellen Moore making his first career start in his fourth season.
The Bills have lost four of five and are eliminated from playoff contention for a 16th straight season, the NFL’s longest active drought. A defense that was supposed to dominate under new coach Rex Ryan has yet to get more than two sacks in a game.
Chicago (5-9) at Tampa Bay (6-8)
Interest in this one centers on Lovie Smith. The current Bucs boss is the third-winningest coach in Bears history behind George Halas and Mike Ditka, compiling an 81-63 record from 2004-12. He led the Bears to three division titles, two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl appearance.
Bucs RB Doug Martin is second in the NFL in rushing with 1,305 yards, 9 yards behind Adrian Peterson.
Jacksonville (5-9) at New Orleans (5-9)
Drew Brees is hobbled by a foot injury, which could limit how many points these teams score. Both are well ahead on offense compared to their defenses. New Orleans’ 30th-ranked defense will be tested by receivers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas.
The Superdome no longer is a tough place for visitors: The Saints are 3-4 at home this season, and were 3-5 there last season.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.