If they're still dreaming of a once-in-a-lifetime experience next month in Detroit, the Carolina Panthers had better have a once-in-a-decade experience today in Atlanta.
"If we win, we go on to bigger and better things," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner told reporters last week. "If we don't, it's up in the air. The key to the whole thing is it's in our hands. It's been in our hands a few times this year, and we have dropped it."
Once a vogue Super Bowl pick by several national media outlets -- among them Sports Illustrated -- the Panthers (10-5) have cooled in recent weeks. They have lost two games in three weeks, to Tampa Bay and Dallas, both of them at home. So the team isn't peaking the way it did when it got to the Super Bowl two years ago.
Asked whether he's frustrated his team finds itself in a must-win situation in Week 17, Panther Coach John Fox said: "You've got to win every week. That's how the whole season is. I'd be more frustrated if we were 5-10 and we had this game to play. It is what it is, and we've got a must-win situation Sunday. But a lot of them have been must-wins."
The Panthers can make the postseason even if they don't win today, but they would need help in the form of either a Dallas loss or tie to visiting St. Louis or a Washington loss or tie at Philadelphia -- both of which are unlikely to happen.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's playoff hopes are history. But that doesn't mean this game is without incentive for the Falcons (8-7), who have a chance to string together the first consecutive winning seasons in franchise history. It's not the playoffs, but hey ...
"We still have a chance to accomplish something that hasn't been accomplished here," Atlanta Coach Jim Mora said. "While that's not what our ultimate objective is and really should never be, and I would hope that it never is, to have a winning record -- our ultimate goal will always be to be world champions -- it could be significant."
The Falcons have been wading through some choppy water in recent days, mostly because of an emotional outburst by Mora on a postgame radio show after last weekend's 27-24 overtime loss to Tampa Bay.
Mora tossed a radio headset to the ground when one of the station's game analysts asked him about possibly running a play on fourth and two instead of punting late in the overtime. The Buccaneers kicked the game-winning field goal a few plays after returning the punt. The coach answered the question before throwing the headset and abruptly ending the interview.
Although Mora wasn't punished by the team, Falcon owner Arthur Blank said the young coach needs to do a better job of controlling his anger.
"It's not that I'm angry at him. I love Jimmy. I just want him to understand that there are better ways to deal with things," Blank told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He has to set standards. There are ways to act when things don't go well."
After talking to Blank and Rich McKay, team president, Mora apologized.
"I just was emotional, upset as anyone who just fought their guts out would be," he said. "I took the headphones down and slammed them down. The things bounced and I walked out. I wasn't in a mental state, at that time, to talk anymore. We'd been through too much for too long."
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If Atlanta beats Carolina today, the Falcons would have consecutive seasons with a winning record for the first time. Longest droughts without back-to-back winning seasons:
*1942-43 seasons were winning ones, but the 1943
Pittsburgh team was merged with Philadelphia's.
Source: STATS LLC