Must win game

Normally 10 wins is enough to guarantee an NFL team a spot in the playoffs. But at 10-4, the Carolina still haven't wrapped up a postseason berth. Last year the Panthers had a chance to sneak into the postseason at 8-8, but lost to the New Orleans Saints in the season finale to finish 7-9. This year, they could fail to make the postseason if they lose their final two games.

Carolina would certainly like to take that possibility out of the mix by clinching a playoff spot with a win Saturday against the Dallas Cowboys at Bank of America Stadium. A Carolina victory combined with an Atlanta win over Tampa Bay would give the Panthers their second NFC South division title in three years, regardless of what happens in the season finale against the Falcons on New Year's Day.

However, heading into Christmas weekend, both Tampa Bay (9-5) and Atlanta (8-6) still have a chance a win the division.

"We're still not in," Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas said following Sunday's 27-10 win over the Saints in Baton Rouge, La. "It's a tight race and we've still got to go in and grind every week."

However, Carolina's win over New Orleans did put the Panthers in the driver's seat in the NFC South and keeps them in the hunt for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.

The Seattle Seahawks can wrap up the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win this week over Indianapolis, but the No. 2 seed, which comes with an all-important first-round bye and a guaranteed home game in the second round, remains up for grabs.

Chicago, Carolina and the New York Giants are all 10-4.

At this point the Bears have the inside track with a 9-1 record in the NFC and a tiebreaker win over the Panthers. The Giants are 9-3 in conference play; the Panthers 8-3.

A best-case scenario for the Panthers this week would include a win over Dallas, a Tampa Bay loss to Atlanta, a Chicago loss to Green Bay and a Giants loss to Washington.

If all of that happens, the Panthers would wrap up the NFC South and have the inside track to the No. 2 seed.

But right now the Panthers aren't focused on first-round byes or home-field advantages or any other playoff scenario.

They just want to make sure they qualify for the postseason - and that means beating Dallas.

"Right now, we just need to worry about ourselves and winning this next game," said quarterback Jake Delhomme. "Once all is said and done, then we will go from there."

"We've been there before, and it's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league," coach John Fox said of returning to first place in the NFC South. "We've got Dallas coming into our place next, and that's where all our focus will be once we get back to Charlotte."

The Panthers certainly appear better equipped to make a playoff run than they did a week ago after a 20-10 loss to Tampa Bay.

On Sunday, offensive coordinator Dan Henning opened up the offense using more four-receiver sets, and two previously absent weapons arrived - receiver Drew Carter and running back Nick Goings.

Goings had 88 total yards on Sunday, while Carter caught two passes for 48 yards and gives the Panthers another legitimate deep threat to go along with Steve Smith.

Both players had bigger roles in the offense as a result of roster moves prior to Sunday's game.

On Friday, the Panthers released wide receiver Rod Gardner to make room for Carter on the active roster. The following day, they made a tough decision to place Stephen Davis on injured reserve, clearing the way for Goings to step in as the No. 2 back behind starter DeShaun Foster.

"They're both guys who have been on our football team all season, in some capacity," Fox said. "As you move forward, you have to make adjustments. I know Nick was a big part of our team a year ago, and Drew's a guy we've been wanting to get up and get a uniform on."

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