GREEN BAY – As the only two teams in the NFC with fewer than two losses, the 6-1 Packers and 7-0 Panthers are playing for the driver's seat in the conference on Sunday.
Truthfully, though, no matter what team wins, little can be confidently projected in the race for playoff byes and homefield advantage. A glance at the schedules for all the NFC's top contenders shows why.
It's true a loss to the Panthers would put the Packers in a big hole in the quest for the No. 1 seed. There's no denying that. Falling behind Carolina by two games, plus the tiebreaker, with eight to play isn't a promising position for building a road to the Super Bowl through Lambeau Field.
The Packers can't get distracted by all that, though, and they have vowed this week that they won't.
"Can't get caught up in that," defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. "I'll be thinking about the playoffs, and then next thing I know I'm on my back, looking at the sky. I have to focus on the guy I'm playing against. Everything else will take care of itself."
Should the Panthers emerge from Sunday's game 8-0, the race is far from decided, however. Not with Minnesota (5-2), Atlanta (6-2) and Arizona (6-2) all still in a good spot, and with Carolina's remaining schedule.
The Panthers will play the Falcons twice in a span of three weeks in December, games that will have big implications in the NFC South and NFC in general. Carolina also has three dangerous road trips on its slate – a trip to Dallas on Thanksgiving, when the Cowboys are expected to have QB Tony Romo back in action, plus visits to New Orleans (4-4) and the New York Giants (4-4).
The Packers have plenty of challenges ahead, too, as has been mentioned often in this space this season. Two meetings with Minnesota, plus one with Romo-led Dallas and back-to-back road trips to Oakland (4-3) and Arizona in December, leave plenty of work to do, even if the Packers emerge victorious on Sunday at 7-1 with the tiebreaker over the Panthers.
As for that trio of two-loss teams, their roads are littered with potential pitfalls, too. Or potential boosts, depending on the perspective.
The Vikings have only one opponent left on their schedule that is currently below .500. They play the Packers twice, and, like their NFC North rivals, travel to Oakland and Arizona. Minnesota also has a road trip to Atlanta and visits from Seattle (4-4) and St. Louis (4-3, this Sunday).
As mentioned, the Falcons have their two games with the Panthers and the one with the Vikings, plus a second meeting with the Saints, who already beat them.
The Cardinals have the two games against the NFC North leaders, plus two matchups with Seattle, a visit from unbeaten Cincinnati and a trip to St. Louis.
Add it all up and the teams currently grouped at the top of the NFC are going to beat up on one another quite a bit. Given that, and with the season just now reaching the midpoint, it doesn't rule out a team like the Rams, Saints, Giants or yes, even the Seahawks, getting hot and making a run at a top playoff seed.
So the best summation regarding this clash of NFC titans in Charlotte is this: If the Panthers win on Sunday, the race for the top spot is theirs to lose, but it isn't over. If the Packers win, it's just getting started.