SEATTLE — The Carolina Panthers were seemingly out of control two months ago when they fired coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start and a week later traded the star running back Christian McCaffrey at the San Francisco 49ers.
There was the perception around the league that they were going to tank the rest of the season for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Now they control their playoff future.
Sunday’s 30-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field put Carolina (5-8) in position to win the NFC South outright and make the playoffs with wins in the last four games against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8), Detroit Lions (6-7), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) and the Saints of the New Orleans (4-9).
A 9-8 result would give the Panthers the tiebreaker against Tampa Bay and Atlanta (5-8) if they all finished with the same record.
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The Panthers are still a long way from winning the NFC South. According ESPN’s playoff predictorthe Bucs have an 82.3% chance of winning the division and automatically qualifying for the playoffs, followed by Carolina at 14%, Atlanta at 3.2% and New Orleans at 5%.
But the emotion for interim coach Steve Wilks and his players on Sunday as they celebrated their first road win of the season was just as intense as it was in 2015, when Carolina left that ground with a 5-0 record after a bye and on its way to a 15-1 NFL record.
“With everything we’ve been through, they’ve been through, with the coaching changes, getting rid of the players, [the perception of] our organization is trying to stock up, all these different things, and to see how these guys reacted…it’s pretty exciting,” Wilks said, his voice hoarse and full of emotion after the game.
Carolina is in this position largely because of Wilks, who is making a strong case for becoming the full-time coach next season. He’s gone 4-4 since replacing Rhule, including a 3-0 home record, where Rhule was 5-15 in over two seasons.
He gave the team the identity Rhule never could, a foundation built on aggressive defense and relentless offense with the run.
Never was that more evident than on Sunday as the Panthers won back-to-back games for the first time this season. They intercepted the Seattle quarterback Geno Smith twice and were almost a third. They rushed 46 times for 223 yards, including 68 yards on a 10-play drive and 74 yards in the fourth quarter to make it 27-17.
“There’s nothing more demoralizing than having a ball on you in the fourth quarter and not being able to stop it,” said Wilks, a defensive-minded coach who understands what that means.
The Panthers become one of those powerhouse teams that opponents don’t want to see in the playoffs. They rushed 39 times for 199 yards and two touchdowns between tackles on Sunday.
They now lead the NFL in rushes between tackles with 199 and are second in rushing yards between tackles with 926 since Week 7.
The run game took off after Wilks took over and McCaffrey was traded following a loss to the Los Angeles Rams that dropped the team to 1-5. Carolina has averaged 154.6 yards with 10 rushing touchdowns over the past seven games after averaging 90.3 with three rushing touchdowns the first six.
“Everything we do starts up front on both sides of the ball,” Wilks said.
It’s a mentality that Wilks promised when he took over. It’s a mentality that the players have fully embraced.
Strategist Sam Darnold2-0 as a starter since leaving injured reserve and being substituted Mayfield BakerWilks credits.
“With him being able to be honest with us and tell us exactly how we’re going to play the game and what we want to do and not waver,” said Darnold, who completed 14 of 24 pass attempts for 120 yards. and a touchdown. “In the beginning, even when we were losing a few games, it was, ‘Hey, trust the process and trust the game plan.'”
Wilks called the victory a statement in a playoff atmosphere, but reiterated that it means nothing if the Panthers don’t follow up with a strong performance at home against Pittsburgh in Week 15.
linebacker Shaq Thompsonmostly speaking in the locker room, Wilks said he was pleading to be the full-time coach.
“He’s a real alpha, he’s a real leader,” he said. “Guys follow him. He’s a great coach and hopefully he’ll be here for a while.”
After Wilks was named interim coach, Carolina owner David Tepper said Wilks had to do an “incredible job” to be considered for the full-time job. Thompson described the work so far as “amazing”.
“I don’t see why he’s not the best candidate for this,” he said.
Wilks doesn’t look past the next game for his future, just as he doesn’t want his players to look past the next game for the future of the team.
“For 13 weeks I said I was going to have it my way with the players, the coaches and the mentality and the culture that I wanted to create,” Wilks said. “So our mindset doesn’t change. It’s about winning today.
“We will understand what is happening [with the rest] at the end.”