Saturday, January 4, 2014
Panthers' possible playoff matchups
By David Newton
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers don't know who they are playing in their first playoff game since 2008 and really don't care.
"We have to worry about ourselves first," quarterback Cam Newton said on Thursday. "I feel as if we are playing at our best, there's really no team that can stop us."
Here's what we know. The Panthers (12-4), seeded second in the NFC, will host a game on Jan. 12. They will face Philadelphia (10-6) if the third-seeded Eagles defeat New Orleans (11-5) at home on Saturday night.
If not, they will face the winner of Sunday's game between No. 5 San Francisco (12-4) at No. 4 Green Bay (8-7-1).
We also know Philadelphia, Green Bay and San Francisco play 3-4 defenses, so the Panthers have been able to prepare for that during their bye week.
Beyond that, this week has been about getting players such as wide receiver Steve Smith (knee), running back Jonathan Stewart (knee), defensive tackle Colin Cole (thigh) and tight end Ben Hartsock (knee) healthy.
All looks good on that front, with Hartsock the most in doubt.
It also has been about shoring up deficiencies in the passing game that have been an issue the past two weeks.
As Newton said, it's been therapeutic.
But now it's time to focus on what's next. More importantly, what team is next.
Here's a look at the three potential opponents and how the Panthers might stack up against them:
Philadelphia: Offensively, the Eagles pose the biggest threat. They rank second in the league in total offense, first in rushing and ninth in passing. Nick Foles is the hottest quarterback in the NFL with a passer rating of 119.2. He has 27 touchdown passes to only two interceptions, so that'll be a challenge for a Carolina secondary that has at time given up big plays. Running back LeSean McCoy leads the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards.
The Eagles beat Carolina 14-9 in a preseason game in Philadelphia. They racked up 401 yards with their up-tempo offense, including 166 on the ground. The game was closer than it should have been because the Eagles had two interceptions and one lost fumble. It also was the preseason, so you can't put a lot of stock into that.
In Carolina's favor, the Eagles have struggled on defense. They rank 29th in total defense and 32nd against the pass. They gave up 48 points to a weak Minnesota team three weeks ago.
Green Bay: This might be the scariest potential matchup with the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Packers are a different team with their leader under center. They also have a stout running game with Rookie of the Year candidate Eddie Lacy, whose 11 rushing touchdowns are the third most in the league. His 86.7 yards rushing per game since Week 5 ranks behind only Philly's McCoy and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles.
With Rodgers in the lineup, the Packers are averaging 143.8 yards rushing a game, compared to 123.3 without him.
In Carolina's favor, its run defense ranks second in the league and the pass rush has collected 16 sacks in the last two games. Plus, Green Bay's defense is porous. The Packers rank 25th against the run, 24th against the pass and 24th in scoring, allowing 26.75 points per game.
San Francisco: Of the three, the Panthers know this opponent the best because they played them on Nov. 10. The 10-9 victory at San Francisco really was a catalyst because it proved this team could go on the road and beat a quality opponent.
It also was significant because the Panthers had to rally from a 9-0 deficit to win with a fourth-quarter field goal, because before this they were 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under coach Ron Rivera. Since that win, they are 5-0 in such games.
In many ways, the 49ers are a mirror image of Carolina, from having a running quarterback in Colin Kaepernick to a defense that is predicated around stopping the run. San Francisco ranks fifth in overall defense to Carolina's second.
The down side is the 49ers know the Panthers and will have a better idea for a plan of attack.
In Carolina's favor, it already has beaten the 49ers once and coaches understand what is needed to improve. The game would be in Charlotte, where the Panthers have won seven straight since a season-opening loss to Seattle.
My prediction: I'm picking the Saints to beat the Eagles and move on to No. 1 seed Seattle, where they will be looking to avenge their worst loss of the season. I'm liking the 49ers to beat the Packers, setting up a rematch with Carolina.