There haven’t been many opportunities to praise the Panthers’ execution this season, but we got one on Sunday when Carolina pulled off one of the more flawless NFL news dumps in recent memory. The team was on bye in Week 13, but rather than use the downtime to announce they were parting ways with second-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady, the Panthers waited until this week’s early slate of games was 20 minutes underway. If you were busy watching seven hours of commercial-free football, you may have missed the news entirely.

Brady’s firing comes just days after the Panthers put Christian McCaffrey, the team’s best player, on injured reserve with what was first described as a “rolled” ankle. Between those two moves, it looks like the organization is waving a white flag on this season and starting to look ahead to 2022. That may seem premature, considering the team is 5-7 and just one game out of a playoff spot, but for the first time since they hired Matt Rhule, the Panthers are being realistic about where they stand in the league. This is not a good football team, and next offseason will be massive for this regime. Getting an early start is probably best for the franchise.

Carolina won’t be the only team sorting through its priorities over the next five weeks. The wild-card races in both the NFC and AFC are wide open, with 10 teams, including Carolina, within a game of a playoff spot. Some may use the last month of the year to push for that postseason ticket; others have issues that could take precedence over a playoff run. So where do these middle-of-the-pack teams’ priorities lie? Let’s try to figure that out, starting with the team that has the best odds of making the playoffs, according to FiveThiryEight’s prediction model.


Indianapolis Colts: Deciding how much faith to put in Carson Wentz

Playoff odds: 62 percent

The Colts are the only team on this list I feel comfortable calling “good.” Only New England and Buffalo own better point differentials in the AFC, and Indy has already beaten the latter once this year. How the Colts fare against the Patriots in two weeks will tell us a lot about this team’s ceiling.

Carson Wentz is playing far too big a role here for me to fully jump on this team’s bandwagon, but the front office clearly feels differently about its quarterback. Indianapolis already sent a third-round pick to Philadelphia this offseason in the trade for Wentz, and it will have to fork over a first-rounder if he plays 75 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this season—a benchmark the QB is expected to hit next week. In other words, the Colts will almost certainly lose that pick.