Panthers not celebrating playoff berth just yet

STEVE REED AP Sports Writer Published:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- The Carolina Panthers aren't celebrating clinching their first playoff berth since in five years.

There's too much at stake this week.

Carolina can clinch the NFC South championship, wrap up a first-round bye and secure at least one home playoff game by beating the Atlanta Falcons on the road Sunday.

"The work is not done," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We are in the playoffs, but it's not time to relax. We can make it a lot easier for ourselves and earn some rest and let other teams beat themselves up."

The Panthers (11-4) still have an outside shot to earn the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. That would require a Carolina win, a San Francisco victory over Arizona and St. Louis beating Seattle.

The Panthers would love to be home for the playoffs where they've won seven straight games.

"There still is business that needs to be taken care of and there is a lot at stake," coach Ron Rivera said. "We have to start getting ready and getting prepared. It is going to kind of be a different week with Christmas coming up.

"But we will make the best of it and we will continue to prepare. We have to get ready for these guys."

A bye week would give star wide receiver Steve Smith an extra week to recover from a sprained left knee. Smith injured the knee in the first quarter of Carolina's 17-13 win over the Saints and is listed as doubtful for the Falcons. He did not practice Tuesday.

With Smith in the training room for most of the game, Carolina was 0 for 9 on third downs and managed just 222 yards on offense.

Newton had a rough day.

He was held to 116 yards passing and had one interception before going 3 of 5 on the final drive for 65 yards -- including the game-winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left in the game -- to salvage the day.

"We have to correct some things on offense," Rivera said.

Smith isn't the only one who'd prefer an extra week to allow his body to heal.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly could certainly use a little rest after tying an NFL record with 24 tackles and an interception against the Saints, earning him his second NFC Defensive Player of the Week award.

"If we can win this week we get a break, and that's huge," Kuechly said. "It's going to be tough. The Falcons are a good team and they have good weapons. They're much better than their record shows."

The Panthers know they can't afford to overlook the Falcons (4-11), even though their postseason hopes ended weeks ago.

A year ago the playoff-bound Falcons came to Charlotte late in the season and got trounced by a Panthers team with nothing to play for but pride.

The Panthers suspect the Falcons would surely like to turn the tables on them this year.

"There is bad blood between us and Atlanta," Mitchell said. "It's a division game and we saw how hard they played against San Francisco. They are not going to lay down at all. For us to earn that week off we have to bring our A game."

Said linebacker Thomas Davis: "It's been a long time since this team has made it to the playoffs. It feels good. I know it feels great for our fans to be able to celebrate this win, and it feels great for us as a team. But we still have more work to be done."

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