Shambolic NFC South provides Carolina Panthers with one final shot

(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports) Steve Wilks
(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports) Steve Wilks /

Talk of playoff football isn’t sitting well with Steve Wilks, but the Carolina Panthers still control their destiny within a shambolic NFC South.

Considering how optimistic fans were and the overall hype surrounding the Carolina Panthers, their Week 15 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Bank of America Stadium was incredibly flat. Mike Tomlin’s men served up a physical masterclass in the trenches, which condemned interim head coach Steve Wilks to his first loss on home soil since replacing Matt Rhule.

Protect the Bank was the rallying cry leading up to the contest. But the Steelers came in and took whatever they wanted en route to a convincing victory.

This was a body blow with momentum higher than it’s been in some time. However, all hope is not lost just yet.

Carolina Panthers still control their own NFC South fate

With the New Orleans Saints getting one over on the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers blowing a 17-point lead versus the Cincinnati Bengals, the NFC South is still wide open.

The division is a complete shambles. It’s also one of the more intriguing to keep an eye on, in a weird way.

Nobody knows what to expect from any NFC South team week to week. That’s also true of the Panthers despite their mini-resurgence under Wilks, who’s done a great job in difficult circumstances in pursuit of winning the head coaching gig beyond the current campaign.

When speaking in the immediate aftermath of the loss, Wilks took full responsibility for the way his team performed. He was also quick to dispel any notions about Carolina aiming toward the postseason in its current flux.

"“I thought the focus was fine. The execution did not prevail. Still not worrying about it last week, not worrying about it now. We’ve got to worry about trying to get ourselves right to win a football game. I don’t want anybody in this building talking playoffs.”"

Not only do the Panthers have one final shot at staking a claim within the division, but they also control their own destiny. Even if winning out looks like a long shot at best considering how lackluster the performance was on Sunday.

It’s going to take a monumental effort – especially with two road games and the red-hot Detroit Lions coming to town – but this is a resolute group and Wilks will be letting them know more is needed in no uncertain terms throughout practice this week.

Realistically, it’s hard to see Carolina finishing atop the NFC South. But they do hold the tiebreakers and the division’s complete unpredictability means anything is possible.

Only the brightest optimist would predict a three-game winning run to close what’s been another dramatic 2022 season. Wilks will be taking things one game at a time, which starts with trying to overcome a Lions team that has the postseason in sight after going 6-1 over their last seven contests.

Sunday’s disappointing reverse was a wake-up call about how much more is needed before the Panthers can be taken seriously. Wilks won’t want the campaign concluding on a sour note with his own future at stake, so expect a big response and improved commitment during Carolina’s home finale.

Otherwise, things could get ugly down the stretch.

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