Wilks’ Panthers control playoff destiny with 4 games left


CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) — Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks’ stocks are rising.

Behind Wilks’ belief in hard-hitting football and a solid, opportunistic defense, Carolina has won three of its last four games and now controls its playoff destiny.

If the Panthers (5-8) win, they become NFC South Champions.

Tampa Bay (6-7) currently sits alone in first place, but the Panthers have already beaten the Buccaneers and will meet again in Week 17. A win in Tampa gives the Panthers a head-to-head tiebreak. The Panthers will also hold a division tiebreaker against the Atlanta Falcons (5-8) if they win.

“It’s exciting, just for the men in this locker room, how hard they work, how dedicated they were,” Wilks said after Carolina’s first road win of the season, a 30-24 win in Seattle. “We have found that we are able to deal with it. Always talk about it, don’t let it get in the way, whatever it may be.

“It started with the change of coach. I can keep going with the different things, with players leaving, coaches, whatever. These men in this locker room found a way to refocus and get it done.”

The big question for Panthers owner David Tepper to decide over the next few weeks is whether Wilks’ performance justified him being promoted to full-time head coach.

“My approach is day-by-day,” Wilks said. “It’s just really trying to win another game. That’s not what I’m talking about.”

WHAT WORKS

run offensive. The Panthers wore down the Seahawks in their own stadium behind a constant dose of football. Carolina rushed 46 times for 223 yards and had nearly 19 minutes of possession time advantage.

Center Bradley Bozeman said he feels the Panthers are wearing opponents down.

“You just keep banging and banging and eventually they start to have a little doubt,” Bozeman said. “You raised a little doubt in their minds, and you have to keep it going. … We kept accelerating and kept driving.”

On a few occasions, the Panthers used a jumbo pack they call “Arby’s” that includes eight offensive linemen on the field. Warden Brady Christensen said the package was named because “we’ve got the meat!” — a reference to the fast-food company’s slogan.

“That’s a lot of meat out there,” he added.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

pass defense. The Panthers allowed Geno Smith for 264 yards and three touchdowns, including an easy one late in the game that put Seattle to six points. But there was some consolation in the second twice intercepting Smith, resulting in 10 points.

TOP UP

WR Terrace Marshall Jr. The former second-round pick might have made catch of the week in the NFL if He caught a pass from Sam Darnold with his legs. The ball dislodged in Marshall’s arms and traveled down, forcing him to pinch it tightly with his legs as he went down. Seattle coach Pete Carroll challenged the game, but Marshall’s catch was confirmed.

“It was a big effort on his part,” Wilks said. “If you look at Terrace, we’re talking about trying the next step and we really saw that in him.”

STOCK DOWN

fan support. Perhaps the Panthers’ fan base is a little drained from five seasons in which they’ve lost football, but the support hasn’t been there this season. Wilks pleaded Monday for Panthers fans to come out strong on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose fans typically travel well and tend to nix home field advantage at Bank of America Stadium.

Wilks, who is from Charlotte, said he can remember games when the Panthers had the noisiest stadium in the league.

INJURIES

WR DJ Moore was due to have an MRI on his ankle on Monday. He was injured while making a block in the fourth quarter on Sunday. … DE Brian Burns is struggling with a knee injury but has played through it. … SS Xavier Woods could return this week after being pitted against the Seahawks.

KEY NUMBER

2-0 – Darnold’s record as a starter this season. “Any time you can run the ball 200 yards in an NFL game, it makes your job as a quarterback a lot easier,” Darnold said. “Most of our passyards came in the first half. In the second half we were just able to let the football run. That’s kind of our identity at the moment.”

NEXT STEPS

The Panthers have back-to-back home games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions before finishing the season on the road at Tampa Bay and the New Orleans Saints. Neither of these teams has won records.

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