The Carolina Panthers and New York Jets meet Sunday in a game with playoff implications, something few probably would have predicted before the season.
The Panthers (9-4) are currently the fifth seed in the NFC and had won eight straight games before their 31-13 loss at New Orleans. They still have an outside chance at winning the NFC South if they win out and the Saints lose two of three, including a rematch in Charlotte on Dec. 22.
The Jets (6-7) are in a more tenuous situation. They are a game behind Baltimore (7-6) for the sixth seed in the AFC and probably need to win out to have a legitimate playoff shot, with Miami at 7-6 and the Chargers 6-7.
A lot is at stake. ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Jets reporter Rich Cimini are here to break this one down.
Newton: Rich, the Jets have impressive wins over New England and New Orleans. They also have some bad losses to teams they probably expected to beat. Why have they been so Jekyll-and-Hyde?
Cimini: Good question, Dave. I think Rex Ryan wishes he knew the answer to that. The Jets are your basic mediocre football team -- 2-4 against teams with winning records, 4-3 against the others. To their credit, they played exceptionally well in upsetting the Patriots and Saints. I know this sounds crazy, but in retrospect those wins have turned out to be somewhat of a curse. It raised the expectation level, inside and outside the organization, putting pressure on the team. Clearly, they haven't handled it well.
This is a young team (five starting rookies) prone to wild swings. They're feeling better about themselves after beating the Raiders, snapping a three-game losing streak. Their offense played its best game in two months, which is to say it actually found the end zone. But I have a feeling the Jets about to get hit with a sobering dose of reality -- which happened to the Panthers in New Orleans. What's the mood around the team and how do you think it will respond?
Newton: The mood is surprisingly upbeat for a team that was just embarrassed on prime-time television. Check out my post on defensive end Greg Hardy talking Monday about his Sunday night introduction as "Kraken, Hogwarts" and you'll see he has already moved on. That's what I saw from the entire locker room. One of the strengths of this team has been its ability to put the last game in the rearview mirror quickly, regardless of whether it's a win or a loss.
I'm not suggesting a blowout in this one, but my guess is the Jets will respond similar to the way the Saints did to their 34-7 loss to Seattle. The Panthers understand what's at stake and are completely focused on the Jets. Several have mentioned how well New York has played defensively, but from what I've seen, it has given up a lot of yards the past few games. What's going on there?
Cimini: I read the "Kraken, Hogwarts" item; Hardy sounds like a trip. Anyway, on the Jets' defense, you're right: They've given up a lot of yards the past two weeks -- 836. That's the highest back-to-back total in the Rex Ryan era. Why? A few reasons, including fatigue. Because of the offensive struggles, the defense has spent a lot of time on the field and it could be taking a toll. Also, the secondary has been a major disappointment. It has allowed 44 pass plays of 20 or more yards. To compensate, Ryan is playing more two-high-safety looks than usual, leaving seven in the box. That has left the Jets vulnerable against the run.
They brought in Ed Reed to help prevent the long ball, but he hasn't made a huge impact. The cornerback play, once a strength, has dropped off considerably. Antonio Cromartie, coming off a Pro Bowl season, is playing with a bum hip and getting torched regularly. Rookie Dee Milliner has experienced his share of growing pains. The Jets had trouble with Matt McGloin and Ryan Tannehill, so I have to think Cam Newton will have a big day. Will he?
Newton: I'm not a soothsayer, but if he does, the Jets are in trouble. When Newton has a big day, the Panthers usually do, too. But what has been key this season is Newton hasn't always had to have a big day for Carolina to succeed. Newton has learned to rely on others around him to make plays, not feeling like he has to carry the load. It's a big reason the Panthers are 9-4. The Saints did a good job of keeping him in check, but they were playing with a big lead after the second quarter. The defensive linemen didn't have to respect the run as much and were able to focus on Newton. When the offense has been somewhat balanced, Newton has been dangerous.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Geno Smith seems to be all over the place, but the coaches have stuck with him. Why?
Cimini: "All over the place" is being kind, Dave. He went through a two-month stretch of historically bad quarterback play. So why is he still the guy? New general manager John Idzik drafted Smith in the second round and he wants to get a complete evaluation, determining if he can be their quarterback of the future. Basically, it's a sink-or-swim situation -- and Idzik is willing to suffer in the short term if it helps him make a long-term decision.
Smith wasn't ready to start the season, but he got the job by default when Mark Sanchez wrecked his shoulder in the preseason. With no big-time playmakers around him, Smith is in a difficult situation, but he has handled it as well as could be expected. The backups are Matt Simms (no NFL starts) and veteran David Garrard, who has been in mothballs for three years. So there you have it -- the worst quarterback situation in the NFL. And it won't get better Sunday because the Panthers are outstanding on defense. What makes them so good?
Newton: Your bluntness on the "worst quarterback situation in the NFL" makes me chuckle. Good one. And the Panthers are good at making quarterbacks look bad -- Drew Brees aside. Outside of the Saints, they have been consistent at applying pressure with the front four and then mixing up the coverages with seven players. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have played at a Pro Bowl level, and the front four are stingy at stopping the run, as Carolina's No. 1 ranking against the rush will attest. The addition of rookie tackle Star Lotulelei, a disruptive force in the middle, has been huge.
The Saints were so effective in part because Brees has a quick release and in part because, for the first time in a long time, the Panthers weren't sound fundamentally. I suspect the Saints had a lot to do with creating that. But as badly as they seemed to play against New Orleans, they gave up only 69 yards rushing and 373 yards of total offense. I suspect the New York defense would take that now if they were told that's all Carolina would have on Sunday. Since, from the tone of some of your answers, you anticipate this to be a mismatch, what do you consider the X factor for the Jets to win?
Cimini: Hmm, can I get back to you on that? Just kidding. I actually think this will be an interesting game because the teams are similar -- defensive-minded teams that rely on the running game. The difference is the Panthers do it better than the Jets. As for the X factor, it's running back Chris Ivory. If the Jets can somehow establish a ground game, it would take a lot of pressure off Smith, who could be overwhelmed if he's in too many third-and-long situations. Ivory has been one of the few sparks on offense, and he knows the Panthers from his NFC South days with the Saints. So he's my X factor, but the Jets might need "Y" and "Z" factors to help them Sunday.
Newton: If the Jets can establish the ground game with Ivory, something no Panthers opponent really has done with any back since Buffalo in Week 2, it could be interesting. Regardless, it's a big game for both teams to keep their playoff hopes going.