How crucial is Sunday’s game against the Panthers?

Take a look at the second half of the schedule. Sure, Mike Shanahan says the Redskins aren’t that far from 5-3, but they’re 3-5. This season could end on a high note, or with another 5-11 record, and this Sunday is the first step in determining which way things go.

The Redskins are on a two-game losing streak, and have the bye after hosting 1-6 Carolina. Morale (at least outside Redskins Park) is naturally low after losing to the Giants and Steelers in painful ways. An extra week to mull over a third consecutive loss, and a 3-6 start to the season that was supposed to show evidence of the Redskins’ turnaround, would make for an annoyingly unenjoyable bye. But going into the off week at 4-5, with Robert Griffin III outdueling Cam Newton, and the belief in the Redskins and perhaps the Shanahans begins to surface again.

It might not be that important for fans to believe in the Shanahans, but inside the locker room, buying into the program and believing in your coach’s calls is paramount. Confidence in the plan affects outcomes.

Following the bye, the Redskins are home against the Eagles (3-4) and at the Cowboys (3-4) on Thanksgiving day. Then there are consecutive home games against the Giants (6-2) on Sunday night and the Ravens (5-2), before a road game at Cleveland (2-6), another at Philadelphia, and the finale at home against the Cowboys.

The Redskins play five of their final eight games at FedEx Field, five against NFC East opponents and six against sub-.500 teams. So the road from 3-5 to respectability, or even the playoffs, isn’t is treacherous as one might assume it should be. Perhaps the performance in the four games against the currently-struggling-but-still-talented Cowboys and Eagles will go the longest way in determining how the season finishes, but beating Carolina sets the stage for success after the bye.

Do you agree? How vital do you think the Panthers game is, in the big picture?