CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Ron Rivera is clinging to the slim hope the Panthers can rebound from a five-game losing streak, beat the Saints twice in three weeks and earn a wild card spot in the NFC playoffs.
The coach understands the chances of all of that happening are remote at best.
"There's a chance — five percent," Rivera said Tuesday. "That's what they are giving us, so that's what we will take. ... All you need is a chance."
Actually, Carolina's playoff hopes are a little better than that after the Vikings lost to the Seahawks on Monday night. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, which analyzes NFL teams' chances of reaching the postseason, the Panthers have a nine percent chance to reach the playoffs.
Rivera relayed the team's chances to his players on Tuesday as a sort of dangling carrot.
"That would be a great story wouldn't it?" Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers said. "If we won this game and then won two more and made it in?"
When asked if he really thinks that can happen, Peppers smiled and said, "of course it can happen. We expect it to happen, actually."
One look at the standings and the task doesn't seem all that daunting considering the Panthers (6-7) are just a half-game behind the Vikings (6-6-1) in the race for the second wild card spot, tied with the Eagles and Redskins. The Panthers hold a tiebreaker advantage over the Eagles, but not the Redskins.
That doesn't factor in the Panthers haven't won a game since Oct. 28, and will close the season with three games against division foes — including two against the division champion Saints, the first of which is Monday night at home.
Rivera said his plan is to stick with Cam Newton at quarterback despite a lingering right shoulder problem that has limited the former league MVP's ability to throw downfield on a consistent basis and might have contributed to some throws sailing high. On three different occasions this season the Panthers have turned to backup Taylor Heinicke on Hail Mary attempts because of Newton's lack of arm strength.
Rivera said this season bears a resemblance to 2014 when the Panthers were 3-8-1 and managed to win their final four games to capture the NFC South and then beat the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs.
But Carolina has shown no sign of another potential turnaround up until this point. Rather, the Panthers seem to collapse time and time again when they have a chance to break through and regain control of their own playoff destiny.
Carolina was 6-2 and battling for first place in the NFC South when it to went Pittsburgh in early November and got dismantled 52-21 in a nationally televised Thursday night game. The Panthers went on to lose their next four games against the Seahawks and three of the league's lower-end teams — the Lions, Buccaneers and Browns — leading to speculation about Rivera's future.
All four of those losses were all by seven points or less.
"We just keep finding ways to lose," Newton said Sunday.
Rivera felt there was a lot of good" that happened in the Browns' loss, but that the Panthers missed chances in the red zone on offense and had four costly bad plays on defense. He sees those problems as fixable.
The biggest game remaining for the Panthers will be the next one against the Saints, a team they lost to three times last season and bumped them out of playoff contention.
If the Panthers can somehow get past Sean Payton's crew, they will host the fading Falcons on Dec. 23 and play the Saints in a rematch on Jan. 30 — a game in which New Orleans might rest some its starters if it has already solidified one of the top two seeds in the NFC playoffs.
"It's a big emphasis around here that we still have a chance to make the playoffs," said wide receiver D.J. Moore.
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