Overwhelming underdogs? Panthers know that drill, and what can happen

CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was eating lunch and watching ESPN this week when he saw an item roll across the scroll:

The Panthers have a 30 percent chance of beating the Saints in their NFC wild-card game Sunday, according to ESPN's football power index.

Munnerlyn was taken aback a bit.

"I was like, man, it's the playoffs. It's anybody's game. Both teams are 11-5," Munnerlyn said. "We know they beat us twice already, don't get me wrong. But it's the playoffs. It's a new season. Nobody cares about record. Nobody cares about who's their quarterback and things like that. We've got to go out there and we've got to execute and we've got to compete with those guys."

If Munnerlyn felt slighted by ESPN's FPI, he won't like this much: As of Friday morning, 60 of 62 experts were predicting a Saints' victory on Sunday, according to nflpickwatch.com.

It's a completely different vibe from the Panthers' previous postseason game – when they were they overwhelming favorites against Denver in Super Bowl 50.

But the Panthers, after rolling through the regular season at 15-1 in 2015 and winning a pair of playoff games at home, fell to the Broncos 24-10 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Carolina's path back to a Super Bowl this year would likely have to be a three-week road trip. The only way the fifth-seeded Panthers would host a playoff game would be if they were to meet No. 6 seed Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.

"Obviously, we know we're probably not going to be at home like we were in '15. In '15 we knew if we won we'd be at home the whole time. It's kind of fun knowing you'll be in front of the home crowd," Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "But we've got to go down there and play hard. It's going to be a really good environment. That place is awesome. And it'll be rocking for the game this weekend."

History says ...

The Panthers were in New Orleans five weeks ago, falling 31-21 in a game in which they had a season-high 12 missed tackles and allowed Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to run roughshod over them.

In the two regular-season losses to the Saints, Carolina gave up averages of 32.5 points and 381 total yards. New Orleans racked up 14 big plays (passes of 20-plus yards and runs of 10-plus), compared with nine for the Panthers.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 47 of 63 passes (74.6 percent) against the Panthers, with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating well above 100.

The Panthers have managed just three sacks against Brees in the two meetings.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had a rough game in the 34-13 defeat in Week 3 (three interceptions, sacked four times, and a 43.8 passer rating), but played well last month in the 10-point loss.

While Kuechly was the lone Panthers player voted to the Pro Bowl, the Saints will send six players to Orlando – Brees, Kamara, Ingram, receiver Michael Thomas, defensive end Cameron Jordan and rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

"Don't get me wrong – they've got a Hall of Fame quarterback. We know that," Munnerlyn said. "But at the same time a game's gonna be played ... on Sunday. We've got to go out there and try to get this win. It's do-or-die time."

Panthers coach Ron Rivera doesn't mind his team's underdog status, and has used such perceived slights as motivating tools in previous seasons.

"I love being in this position, I really do," Rivera said. "When people discount you, that's fine. Hopefully, we all understand that as a team, as an organization, as a city."

A playoff afterthought

The Panthers have never faced a division opponent in the postseason. But they were almost guaranteed to run into one this year, with the South making up half of the field on the NFC side.

Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis feels like the Panthers have been an afterthought on the NFL landscape all season, even while they were beating the Patriots on the road in Week 4 and running off seven wins in an eight-game stretch.

"Nobody ever looked at this team and said we had a chance – at any given point in this season. We're fine with that," Davis said. "It's all about the men in this locker room and the people that's a part of this organization. We believe in each other. We go out and play for one another. And that's been the makeup of this football team for a long time now and it's going to continue to be."

With owner and founder Jerry Richardson selling the team at the conclusion of the season, the organization is about to undergo the most significant changes in its 23-year history.

The Panthers moved Saturday to stabilize at least one key figure by signing Rivera to a two-year extension through the 2020 season. The deal is worth $15.5 million, according to a source.

But the fate of others in the front office – including interim general manager Marty Hurney – remains uncertain.

"The only thing we can control is what happens on the football field," Rivera said. "I don't think it plays into how we feel or how we're gonna play."

Players on the edge, too

There's uncertainty surrounding the status of several veterans in the locker room, too.

Iconic defensive end Julius Peppers, who came back to Charlotte on a one-year deal, wasn't interested in discussing his future this week.

Other pending free agents include defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, tight end Ed Dickson, left guard Andrew Norwell and kicker Graham Gano, who missed only one field goal during the regular season and is expected to make the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for Greg Zuerlein.

Center Ryan Kalil, a five-time Pro Bowler, has another year left on his contract. And despite battling injuries the past two seasons, Kalil says he wants to play another year.

While the Panthers have made the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, Kalil says he tells young players not to take the postseason for granted and to make the most of the opportunity while playing into January.

That's as true Sunday when Carolina is nearly a touchdown underdog to the Saints as it was in 2015 when the Panthers were favored by almost a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

"We get to get in the show and make a run at it. It's the same for us regardless," Kalil said. "No different than winning seven games and getting in (in 2014). So we get a shot at it."