CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers can't guarantee themselves home games throughout the playoffs, but they can get themselves a week off -- which may be just as important.
The Panthers lost home-field advantage in the NFC last week in New York, but can clinch the No. 2 seed with a win today in New Orleans. That would mean a bye week, and that's the thing players have their eyes on at the end of a long season.
"A lot," linebacker Na'il Diggs replied when asked the difference between Nos. 2 and 5. "Now that you're in the playoffs, you've got to jockey for position. The difference between the 2 seed and having that first-week bye and the No. 5 is you're going somewhere, you're traveling. So we would much rather have a bye week and be at home.
"We've got to just play for much more than that. We've got to win four games in a row, starting this week."
While you could argue about home field, there's little disputing the importance of the week off for teams battered and sore after five months of contact.
Since the league expanded the playoff field to 12 teams in 1990, the top two seeds who had the week off are a combined 56-16 in the divisional round (.778). The trend's even stronger in the NFC, in which the top two are 31-5 (.861). Carolina actually administered two of those losses, by beating St. Louis in 2003 and Chicago in 2005 on the road.
So while winning this week doesn't give you a pass to the NFC Championship game, it sure does help.
While recent history shows you can get to the Super Bowl from the Wild Card round (both the New York Giants last year and Pittsburgh after the 2005 season won titles by winning four road games), you'd still rather not.
In the first decade of the current format (1990-99), only one team one the Super Bowl without a bye -- the 1997 Denver club that came from the fourth seed.
Since 2000, only one top seed (New England 2003) and three second seeds (New England in 2001 and 2004 and Tampa Bay in 2002) have captured a title by winning just three games.
So what the Panthers would like now is a chance to stack the deck, to get some rest while their future opponents take to the road and get beat up.
It's a concept that's rare around Charlotte, what with two Napoleonic road trips in playoff runs past.
"I've never had one," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of the bye, his eyes growing wide at the thought of it. "We made the Super Bowl without one. You look at last year, the Giants went on the road. They didn't have one. ... It would be great. I would love to experience a bye week going into the playoffs. But we'll see."