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Panthers beat three of four teams remaining in NFC Playoffs

Sometimes, you can only wonder ‘what if’.

For the Carolina Panthers and their fans, having to sit and watch the NFL playoffs has been difficult enough. The Panthers’ playoff candidacy was almost a foregone conclusion at the midway point of the 2018 season before injuries, defensive inadequacy, and other issues resulted in the Panthers losing seven of their final eight games and missing the postseason entirely at 7-9. But with the results of Wild Card Weekend settled and four teams now remaining in the NFC playoffs, the way the Panthers’ season ended up transpiring will surely sting even more given who is left to contest a spot in Super Bowl LIII.

Of the four teams remaining in the NFC playoffs, the Panthers had beaten all three that they faced: They beat the Dallas Cowboys in Week One, the Philadelphia Eagles in Week Seven, and finally beat the New Orleans Saints in Week 17 after arguably outplaying them in a Week 15 defensive struggle. The only team that they had not beaten was the Los Angeles Rams, who they did not play. In all, the Panthers can boast of a 3-1 record against the remaining teams in the NFC.

With that being said, it should be noted that the Panthers’ success against the Cowboys, Eagles, and Saints would not have guaranteed their conquest – Particularly in the case of the Cowboys and Eagles. As is often the case when two teams play each other early in the season, both the Cowboys and Eagles would have presented the Panthers with two entirely different opponents: The Cowboys have improved by leaps and bounds since Week One, as they now have one of the NFL’s best defenses and a vastly improved offense thanks to the addition of wide receiver Amari Cooper via trade and the continued dominance of running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Eagles, meanwhile, are now led by Super Bowl hero Nick Foles, who led the Eagles completely back from the brink and has now turned them into a team that always capitalizes if allowed to hang around.

Those changes, combined with the injury to Cam Newton‘s shoulder and major issues the defense faced in the second half of the season, would have meant that the Panthers’ road to at least the NFC Championship Game was hardly assured. Assuming Newton had stayed healthy, there’s plenty of reason to believe that the Panthers could very well have still competed with the remaining teams in the conference. However, the pesky element of the ‘butterfly effect’ should also be considered: If Newton had stayed healthy, for instance, would the Panthers have made the sort of sweeping changes to their defense that they did? And what of other injuries the team suffered, such as ones to kicker Graham Gano, linebacker Shaq Thompson, among others?

The Panthers’ 2018 season was an illustration of how fleeting success can be in professional football, and how nothing is guaranteed down the stretch of a single week, much less an entire season. As the Divisional Round of the playoffs begins this week, the Panthers and their fans can claim bragging rights over the four teams that are still playing in the NFC – But only that. Beyond simply being able to take comfort in the fact that they were capable of beating any opponent they faced, the coming weekend’s slate of playoff games will likely only serve to frustrate the Carolina faithful further.

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