NFC Playoff Picture: Can Carolina be stopped?

What a difference a year makes.

At this time last autumn, the Panthers were 3-8-1. Today, they roam as the NFL's lone unbeaten jewel.

Surging toward home-field advantage in the NFC, Carolina's storybook season is a league-wide reminder that blowing up the machine isn't always the answer. It was just a few years ago that every Ron Rivera press conference was a referendum on his job status. Today, Carolina's coach faces a more enviable question: Can his Panthers turn 12-0 into a perfect season?

It's completely possible with two games left against the flat-lining Falcons plus tilts vs. the Giants and frisky Bucs. None of those teams are playing near the level of Carolina, a club with no obvious weakness heading into Week 14.

Barring an epic collapse, the Panthers are on track to salt away home-field advantage before Christmas. They can assure themselves a first-round bye as early as Sunday with a win over Atlanta along with loss or tie by the Vikings and Packers.

Can anyone derail Carolina's magic carpet ride? Let's take a look below.

*This is our weekly look at the NFC playoff picture. The official standings are here. We analyzed the AFC on Monday. *

Cardinals coup d'état?

Arizona currently occupies the No. 2 seed and will clinch a playoff berth with a win or tie against the Vikings on Thursday night. If they pull off the victory and Seattle falls to the Ravens, the Cardinals are your NFC West champions.

We don't see the uneven Packers or Vikings as a threat to steal a first-round bye, not with the way Arizona is playing. Bruce Arians has done an outstanding job getting his players up for every game. Winners of six in a row, the Cards are Carolina's primary problem in the NFC.

Arizona's offense scores points in waves, ripping through defenses with a weapons-rich attack on pace for the best offense in franchise history. Three games ahead of the Seahawks, a division crown is certain barring an apocalypse in the desert.

The Panthers have talked all season about not getting enough respect, so they won't like this one bit: The Cardinals have the talent and composure to end Carolina's season and seal up Super Bowl 50. No team is more impressive on tape, no matter how the seeding plays out.

Surging Seahawks in spoiler mode?

They won't win the West, but Seattle has the power to do major damage in January.

Playing their best football all year, the Seahawks (7-5) face a cakewalk schedule down the stretch with games against the Ravens, Browns and Rams before taking on a Cardinals team that might rest their starters in the finale.

If the season ended today, Seattle would wind up facing Green Bay in the wild card as the NFC's sixth seed. That would serve as a juicy rematch of last year's NFC title game, but this Packers team would struggle to top today's version of the 'Hawks. Russell Wilson is playing out of his mind, while rookie runner Thomas Rawls is operating as Beast Mode 2.0 for a team loaded with veteran talent and a flock of young stars-in-the-making.

Don't discount Seattle's playoff experience, either. Coach Pete Carroll hasn't panicked during his team's ups and downs -- and neither have his players. Like last year, this gang is peaking at the right time.

The NFC East: A terrible abyss

I won't waste your time on a division nobody wants to win. There is no better argument for re-seeding the postseason than an NFC East horror show destined to give birth to a 7-9 -- or even 6-10 -- division winner. Gross.

Northern nobodies?

The Packers (8-4) would win the North and the Vikings (8-4) would make the party if the playoffs started today. Neither feel like a threat to reach the Super Bowl. Currently notched as the fifth seed, Minnesota's been blown out twice in the past three weeks and face remaining games against the Cardinals, Bears, Giants and Packers. Vikings fans complain about a lack of attention, but they can clam it: This team has injury issues and holes all over the place.

Minnesota's season-ending tilt with Green Bay is bound to decide this division unless the Packers -- the NFC's third seed -- pull ahead with games against the Cowboys, Raiders and Cards.

Cinderella in pewter?

Outside of the Bucs, the rest of the NFC borders on garbage. Losing six of their last seven, the spiraling Falcons would need a miracle to make the playoffs with two games left against the Panthers. They also play the Jaguars and Saints, but this feels like an 8-8 team that just went about it in a weird way.

Tampa is plenty of fun with Jameis Winston at the helm. It's a shame if they're bumped in favor of some warmed-over NFC East corpse, but the Bucs have the chance to steal a wild-card spot if they can blow up the Saints, Rams, Bears and Panthers. If Carolina rests players in Week 17, this schedule is a dream.

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