For much of the NFL season, it was a foregone conclusion that the NFC South winner would be one-and-done in the playoffs, regardless of its opponent. That, however, may no longer be the case.

Yes, the Carolina Panthers are 7-8-1, but they also closed the season on a four-game winning streak that was bookended by 31-point blowouts at New Orleans and at Atlanta.

Is it possible that Carolina, which hosts Arizona (11-5) at 4:20 p.m. on Saturday, could go on a deep playoff run?

“The (division) didn’t really do too well, but I think Carolina is trending in the right direction,” NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest said on The Doug Gottlieb Show. “If you listen to Ron Rivera talk about his team, the defense is starting to play better (and) they’re getting healthy at the running back position.”

That includes Jonathan Stewart, who rushed 79 times for 401 yards – 5.1 yards per carry – and a touchdown over the final month of the season. As a team, Carolina rushed

152 times for 797 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and four touchdowns over its final four games.

McGinest said the Panthers might be the best running team in football right now. They also look nothing like the team that started the season 3-8-1.

“And Cam Newton is healthy,” McGinest added. “So you always look for in the playoffs a dark horse. I don’t know how far they’ll go, but they’re looking pretty dangerous right now.”

Dangerous enough to beat top-seeded Seattle? Carolina lost at home to the Seahawks, 13-9 in October.

“To be honest, I don’t think there’s a lot of teams that can go in and win in Seattle if they’re playing the way they have been playing,” McGinest said. “The defense is a constant. We know how the defense is going to play and how they’re going to show up. It’s the offense. If they can continue to run the football (and) Russell Wilson (continues to) be as good as he has been in the last month of (the season in terms of) creating and doing a lot of things that he does, (Seattle will be difficult to beat).”

McGinest said Seattle’s weakness is its offensive line, but if the big guys upfront can buy Wilson time to throw, the Seahawks are virtually unbeatable.

“If he has time and he’s allowed to throw the ball from the pocket, man, I think fans are in for a treat,” McGinest said. “This kid can really throw the ball from the pocket, but because of the constant pressure, they move the pocket a lot and he scrambles a lot.”

But again, could Carolina go to Seattle and win?

“Any given Sunday,” McGinest said. “Any given Sunday, anything can happen. I just don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t think Carolina has enough to go in and beat Seattle on the road in Seattle the way Seattle’s playing. I don’t think Carolina can do it.”


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