The Carolina Panthers are the NFC South upstarts, the team that has come out of nowhere to challenge for the division crown.
That storyline is fine, but the Panthers' revival started last year after everyone stopped paying attention to them, and was punctuated by a road win at New Orleans.
Before assuming that a Panthers' win on Sunday would be a massive upset, consider that they won in New Orleans less than a year ago. Carolina won 44-38 at the Superdome in Week 17, the Panthers' fifth win in their final six games last season. If you want to believe that the Saints were mailing it in by that point in the season, it's worth noting that New Orleans won in Week 15 and 16.
The Panthers were laying the foundation for their breakout 2013 season, and that win in the final week gave them a lot of positive momentum into the offseason.
In the finale at New Orleans, DeAngelo Williams had 210 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and Mike Tolbert had three rushing touchdowns. Carolina led 41-24 early in the fourth quarter and held off a late Saints rally. That gave the Panthers a season sweep of the Saints. They beat New Orleans in Week 2 as well.
New Orleans is a much better team this season. The return of coach Sean Payton has been huge, and the defense is much improved. But Carolina knows it can win at the Superdome and won't be intimidated on Sunday night.
The Panthers also just saw New Orleans get kicked around pretty good on Monday night by a Seahawks team that plays physical defense, runs the ball well and has a dynamic young quarterback. That same formula has lifted the Panthers to a 9-3 record, tied with the Saints for first place in the NFC South.
The Panthers probably need to win this game to take the NFC South title. Both are still undefeated in division play, but Carolina has dropped two games against NFC teams and the Saints have lost just one. That will be very important if the division is decided on tiebreakers. Maybe the Saints drop a game to the Rams or Buccaneers down the stretch and that changes the tiebreaker situation, but the easiest path for the Panthers to win the division and likely get the No. 2 seed in the NFC is to beat the Saints this week and finish the sweep in Week 16 at Carolina.
New Orleans has been one of the best teams in the NFL all season. But the Panthers should have the confidence that if anyone can win at the Superdome this season, it's them.
(Here are the other NFL games this week, from best to worst (all times Eastern, all games Sunday unless noted otherwise):
2. Seattle at San Francisco, 4:25 p.m.: Too bad this game lost some steam when the Seahawks took a three-game lead in the NFC West. Even if the 49ers win, Seattle will be favored in all three of its remaining games and is the overwhelming favorite to get the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But it should still be a fun game between two bitter rivals.
3. Detroit at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.: The Eagles probably have more on the line because they're in a tie with the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East. The Lions would surely like to wrap up the NFC North sooner than later, though.
4. Indianapolis at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.: Another interesting game between first-place teams. The Colts can clinch the AFC South this week, and the Bengals are trying to wrap up the North before Week 17's game against Baltimore.
5. Miami at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.: The Steelers' offensive line injuries are a big issue. They need to win this game to stay in the wild-card race. The Dolphins are tied for the sixth seed but have a tough remaining schedule.
6. Tennessee at Denver, 4:05 p.m.: The high temperature in Denver on Sunday is supposed to be in the teens. Every throw Peyton Manning makes in the cold weather will be dissected, and rightfully so.
7. Dallas at Chicago, 8:40 p.m. (Monday): The Cowboys can't stop the pass, and the Bears can't stop the run. Should make for an interesting Monday night affair.
8. St. Louis at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.: The Rams are tough to predict, but they're capable of giving the Cardinals a good game, even though Arizona has been very tough at home.
9. Minnesota at Baltimore, 1 p.m.: If the Vikings can find a way to move the ball, they could really throw a wrench into the AFC wild-card race with a win.
10. Kansas City at Washington, 1 p.m.: The Chiefs' three-game losing streak isn't the end of the world for them. A loss to a horrible Redskins team would cause some panic.
11. N.Y. Giants at San Diego, 4:25 p.m.: No, folks, the Giants' win over the Redskins on Sunday night didn't save their season. It's dead. They're a terrible team.
12. Cleveland at New England, 1 p.m.: The Browns' starting quarterback remained a secret early in the week, mostly because of injuries to Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden. Truthfully, it doesn't matter who they start.
13. Oakland at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.: Want to see Jets fans freak out? Then root for undrafted Raiders rookie quarterback Matt McGloin to outplay Jets second-round pick Geno Smith.
14. Buffalo at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.: This game is a little more interesting than the 7-17 combined records indicate, just because these are two of the top 2014 breakout candidates.
15. Atlanta at Green Bay, 1 p.m.: The NFL changes so fast, doesn't it? A few months ago, this looked like an incredible matchup. (However, it would get much more watchable if Aaron Rodgers makes his return.)
16. Houston at Jacksonville, 8:25 p.m. (Thursday): Exhibit A why we should probably just do away with "Thursday Night Football."
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This week’s Early Edition keys in on a few divisional games that could shape the playoff landscape significantly, but there are a few other intriguing games that could color our view of the teams as we steamroll toward the playoffs — plus a few teams that about are far from the playoffs as you can get, too. Here are the biggest storylines as we take an early look at Week 14’s action.
Showdown in NOLA
It’s a short, bitter week for the New Orleans Saints as they pick up the pieces from the brutal loss to the Seattle Seahawks and get prepared to face the suddenly scorching Carolina Panthers Sunday night in New Orleans.
The short week was made shorter for the Saints when their plane out of Sea-Tac was delayed because of engine failure, similar to what had played out on the field. Now they must face a Panthers defense that actually is statistically better than the one that held them to a mere seven points on Monday.
The Panthers might not be as tenacious and ferocious in the secondary as the Seahawks are, but they clearly come in brimming with confidence and possess one of the most gifted defensive lines — led by Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Star Lotulelei — in the game.
But there’s another part of the equation: Cam Newton and the Panthers’ effective and waxing offense against a Saints defense that tried everything in vain against the athleticism and precision of Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. Blitzing didn’t work — so will they ditch that approach against Newton?
It’s a fascinating dilemma they face with such a big game on the horizon.
Niners try for late push
All the Seahawks have clinched is a playoff spot, even if the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff strata appears all but a given at this point. But their opponents this weekend, a road date with the rival San Francisco 49ers, can’t be one they overlook.
Although this might seem as much a playoff tuneup as anything, the Seahawks know they still have to go toe to toe with an angry but improving 49ers club and that the division still goes through San Fran until further notice. (Just don’t expect Richard Sherman to say that.)
If it’s Sherman vs. Michael Crabtree, who reintroduced himself to his teammates and the league with a 60-yard catch and run Sunday, then we’re grabbing our popcorn. It’s a matchup — and a game — that easily could reprise itself in the postseason, no matter which team wins.
The first result was stunning at the time: a 29-3 blasting at the hands of the Seahawks in Week 2 that started with an early safety, and steamrolled from there. Actually, it felt a lot like Monday’s Saints-Seahawks game.
If the Niners hope to win, they must avoid that jarring, tone-setting defensive play the Seahawks seem to have in all their signature victories and frustrate them with stone-cold, almost boring, efficiency. At this point, the Seahawks’ biggest obstacle might be themselves, and the best way to beat them could be to frustrate them and hope they self-destruct with penalties and faulty blocking and tackling.
Hanging on for Bear life
The loser of Monday’s Dallas Cowboys-Chicago Bears game will have a hard time feeling good about their postseason chances, although the game clearly has more urgency for the Bears, who currently have tiebreakers over the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants (who are behind them in the standings) by virtue of head-to-head wins but are still behind the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles to get into the playoff’s top six.
Another thing really working against the Bears: their 3-6 conference record, which ranked 11th out of NFC teams, and is the second tiebreaker for playoff considerations.
Will Jay Cutler return yet? Too soon to tell. But Cutler’s absence might be the least of their many worries now. The defense has been bad when it has not been blitzing lately, the offensive line has taken a step back and penalties are absolutely killing them. Then, on top of that, public doubt has set in: The questioning of head coach Marc Trestman and his decision to kick in the overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings has dominated the Chicago airwaves this week.
Strange, but the Bears — not the Cowboys — are the team riding the emotional wave coming into this game. Rare that the ‘Boys are outdone in the drama department, but this week they are.
Major draft implications
We don’t blame you if you don’t watch or DVR Thursday’s Houston Texans-Jacksonville Jaguars game, but this is actually a fairly critical game in the NFL landscape. It won’t play out until May, and there still are four weeks of action left to change the order, but right now the Jaguars and Texans are in serious running to be picking 1-2 in the NFL draft.
What’s stunning, too, is the fact that the Jaguars — the league’s doormats for the first half of the season — have shown some real spunk of late, winning three of four games, and have been the better of the two teams lately.
Still, Vegas has installed the Texans as the slim favorites on the road, and with all of their slim losses — seven of 10 have come in one-score games — the sentiment seems to be that they are the more talented club.
But what about the more motivated one? Gus Bradley might be a Coach of the Year candidate had his team not gotten off to an 0-8 start with the way he’s firing up his troops the past month. The run defense has improved significantly, and the offense has run the ball better and converted more on third downs. But more than that, Bradley has convinced his players to give him their all, which is pretty remarkable when they were roundly consider the worst team in the NFL.
This weekend’s game could change that.
As it stands now, the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts — who meet this Sunday, both sitting at 8-4 — are the three and four seeds in the AFC playoffs. Both are favored to win their respective divisions, with the irony being that the Colts have really struggled to finish opponents off lately, and yet they’d have to really stumble to lose the AFC South and the playoff berth that comes with it.
But the Bengals have not been markedly better of late, even with two solid victories the past two weeks. That said, the game is in Cincinnati and the Bengals are one of five NFL teams that are unbeaten at home (5-0).
With a weakened AFC playoff field arising, Andy Dalton and the Bengals could help themselves out considerably by beating Andrew Luck and the Colts and earning the 3-seed, which could have them facing an 8-8 or even a sub-.500 team in Round 1. Meanwhile, the 4-seed would have to face a Kansas City Chiefs team that, despite losing three straight, was unbeaten into November.
There are six teams right now competing for the final AFC wildcard spot, and the Bengals have beaten three of the five head to head (by a combined 60 points), with the two losses (to the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins) by a field goal or less on the road. There’s a big difference, it appears, between the third and fourth playoff seeds, and this game Sunday could end up being a major implication in how it all stacks up.
Smith and lesson
New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan has been criticized for the way he has handled rookie Geno Smith, whose early-season poise has turned to a nightmarish stretch where he has issued out 10 turnovers and zero touchdown passes in the past five games.
Smith was assured he’d still be starting this weekend when the Jets host the Oakland Raiders, but the ice beneath his feet has been thawing for some time, especially after being benched Sunday in the loss to the Miami Dolphins.
But what was Ryan to do? He has been totally handcuffed on this one.
First, he was given an untenable quarterback situation, whether or not Mark Sanchez got hurt. Smith was new GM John Idzik’s pick, and perhaps not Ryan’s first choice, although that’s speculation. When Sanchez went down, Ryan went all in with Smith — out of necessity.
And Ryan’s decision to bench Smith was borne out of the same force of necessity in that he was trying like heck to win a game and had no choice but to bench his starter. Smith had completed 4-of-10 passes for 29 yards and was showing no indication he could win the game, even though it was only 6-0 at the time.
Of course, neither could Matt Simms, and frankly, we wonder if David Garrard — inactive for five weeks now and having not thrown a regular-season pass since 2010 — could offer any proper relief.
But the lesson here is that a lame-duck coach with a rookie quarterback does not a good pairing make. The thinking used to be that playing a rookie bought you time, but in this day and age of instant results, that does not work anymore.
This train is heading down a rough set of tracks, despite Ryan coaching with every ounce of passion and effort in his body.
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What did Colts head coach Chuck Pagano have to say in his press conference today?
Wayne told a local Indianapolis radio station that Richardson thinks he was forced to play too soon after he was traded to Indianapolis.
A new feature with the Winning Stats: Playoff Odds! Find out how likely a Super Bowl run is based on the Winning Stats. For the Colts, it isn't that likely unfortunately.
Every week, Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson will take an in-depth look at Andrew Luck's game from the previous weekend. Today we look at his performance in the twelfth game against the Tennessee Titans.
The Indianapolis Colts made several roster moves today, placing LB Mario Harvey and RB Daniel "Boom" Herron on injured reserve, promoting LB Daniel Adongo and OT Xavier Nixon, and signing FB Robert Hughes and DT Jeris Pendleton to the practice squad.
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