Sports Breaking

Stakes will be high when Panthers and Saints square off

OK, Panthers, once more with feeling.

For the second time in three weeks, the Carolina Panthers will face the New Orleans Saints in a high-stakes NFC South showdown that will go a long way toward bringing the playoff picture into focus.

Hanging in the balance is sole possession of first place in the division, and a possible first-round bye in the postseason.

The Panthers, who have won nine of 10 games, suffered a 31-13 defeat at New Orleans in Week 14 but got new life Sunday when the Saints lost at St. Louis, 27-16.

Now, the Panthers and Saints each are 10-4. If either team can win its final two games, it will enter the postseason seeded No. 2 with a week off.

The loser Sunday probably will be in a must-win situation in Week 17 to simply reach the postseason. The Panthers finish at Atlanta, and the Saints close at home against Tampa Bay.

Carolina Coach Ron Rivera, whose team overcame a 1-3 start, said the fact that two 10-victory teams have yet to lock down playoff berths speaks to the competitive balance in the conference.

"There's a lot of parity right now in our league," Rivera told reporters Monday. "It makes for an exciting season; it most certainly does give you heartburn. And it is crazy because everybody in the mix is playing each other. I don't know if the schedule makers could have asked for a better situation."

The Saints are looking to rebound after losing two of three games on the road.

"Obviously, we understand our deficiencies on the road here over the last couple trips," quarterback Drew Brees told reporters. "It's just great motivation for us to really hammer down this week and find ways to improve."

Capital offense

It probably will be another weird week in Washington. The Redskins are preparing to play host to Dallas, among the NFL's marquee rivalry games, and Robert Griffin III will be healthy (enough) but in street clothes. Coach Mike Shanahan last week shelved Griffin for the remainder of the season, reasoning the second-year quarterback has absorbed too many hits this season.

Backup quarterback Kirk Cousins played well in the Redskins' loss at Atlanta on Sunday, throwing for 381 yards and three touchdowns. But Shanahan stressed that Griffin is "clearly" the team's starting quarterback in the big picture, and told reporters not to get carried away with thoughts of a quarterback controversy.

As for his future with the team, Shanahan said he has no intention of resigning. Then again, why would he? The Redskins owe him $7 million for the year remaining on his contract, and he would forfeit that money if he voluntarily stepped down.

Shanahan said he plans to sit down with Redskins owner Dan Snyder after the season and discuss the future of the team.

"I'll give him my opinion on the direction I think the franchise could go," Shanahan said. "He's going to give me his idea what he wants to do. He's the owner of the football team. But all we can do at the end of the season is communicate, and I think we have that kind of relationship where we can be honest with each other."

Richie Incognito is in limbo

Miami's Richie Incognito will remain suspended until an NFL investigation into his situation is completed, the Dolphins announced.

In November, the Dolphins suspended Incognito indefinitely after text and voice messages surfaced in which he used racially charged language to threaten fellow Miami offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, who had walked away from the team a week earlier.

Incognito was suspended without pay for two weeks, then received pay for the next four weeks of his ban. The suspension ran its course in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, and the Dolphins were facing a decision this week about whether to release him, reinstate him or work out a deal with him to remain suspended with pay.

By not cutting Incognito loose, the playoff-minded Dolphins are assured that the Pro Bowl guard won't be joining a contender for the postseason.

Attorney Ted Wells was hired by the NFL to conduct an independent investigation, both of the specific claim against Incognito and the locker room environment in Miami. That investigation is expected to last at least several more weeks.

Early exit

Dallas receiver Dez Bryant explained Monday that he ran to the locker room before the end of the Cowboys' upset loss to Green Bay on Sunday because he didn't want to be seen crying on the sideline.

"I was wrong," Bryant told reporters during a visit Monday to Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth. "It didn't have anything to do with my teammates. … I couldn't watch Green Bay kneel the ball down on the field after a tough loss like that.

"I was very emotional. I cried when I got to the locker room. I didn't want to show that stuff on the sideline."

Bryant had 11 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown in Dallas' 37-36 defeat at home, a game in which the Cowboys had been favored by a touchdown.

On his weekly radio show, Coach Jason Garrett said he planned to address the early departure with Bryant later Monday.

"I understand it to a certain extent," Garrett said. "They're kneeling the ball, the game essentially is over. He's an emotional guy. We're all very emotional about what he do.

"But he needs to stay out on the field, and I'll address that with him today. And just explain why it's important to do that, and he'll understand."

The larger lesson?

Mamas, don't let your Cowboys grow up to be babies.

Twitter: @latimesfarmer

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