8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Carolina -5.5
A pair of teams in very different places than we thought they’d be at this juncture of the season battle it on Monday Night Football as the struggling Indianapolis Colts travel to Bank of America Stadium to face the surging Carolina Panthers. A trendy pick by many around the league to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLX, or at the very least serve as the New England Patriots chief competition, the Colts (3-4, 1st in AFC South) have done nothing short of disappoint through the first eight weeks of the campaign. Don’t be fooled by their record or their standing in the division, for this a deeply flawed team in all three phases of the game. In fact, the only reason that anyone in Indianapolis can find some kind of optimism, is the fact that this year’s AFC South looks like the worst division in NFL history. Seriously, at a mere 3-4 (and they’re lucky to be that), Chuck Pagano’s charges sit atop the dreadfully woeful division thanks in large part to the utter ineptitude of their neighbors in the South. Houston has regressed significantly after a surprise 9-7 campaign a year ago, while Jacksonville and Tennessee continue to experience the growing pains in nurturing their young Quarterbacks. In fact, all three of the Colts’ victories have come against their brethren in the division, and to be honest, none were very convincing; Indianapolis has won those three contests by an average margin of 4.0 points yet being outgained by 93.7 yards per contest, compared to being outscored by 9.8 points per game. Slow starts have been an affliction that they’ve yet to find a remedy for; in their seven outings, the Colts have been outscored 100-58 in the first half alone, forcing them to play catchup over the final thirty minutes of play. Take their most recent blunder for example, a 27-21 loss at home to the Saints, which wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would suggest. With their defense resembling something akin to a sieve, the home side found themselves trailing 20-0 by halftime, unable to mount much offensively against one of the league’s worst defenses. Granted, 376 total yards is far from something to sneer at, but the fact that the bulk of that total came once Andrew Luck and Co. entered into panic mode continues an alarming trend that has been prevalent since he entered the league in 2012. Luck, to his credit completed 23-of-44 passes for 333 yards, tossing three touchdowns despite two interceptions, as he was under fire by an aggressive New Orleans defensive front that had suddenly looked the 1985 Chicago Bears vaunted unit. Indeed, the defeat in many ways served as microcosm of their season thus far; Indy was one-dimensional offensively, rushing for just 75 yards on thirteen carries, was terrible on Third Down (3-of-13), very careless with the football (three turnovers, along with two more recovered fumbles), terrible in pass protection (four sacks), and very sloppy in their execution (seven penalties for 42 yards).
So with that said, what in the name of Johnny Unitas has happened to the Colts? For a team that has taken pretty sizable steps in terms of evolution over each the past three years, 2015 can be described as nothing short of a disaster, whether they back into the Playoffs or not. Remember folks, these guys advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game last year, and considering the number of players added in the offseason, all signs were pointing to a BIG year from Indianapolis. Oh, but expectations can be a mother@#$%^&, and Pagano and Co. are finding that out firsthand. Offensively, his team has been a damn mess, committing the third-most turnovers in the league (nine interceptions, six lost fumbles), while eschewing the ground game altogether, ranking thirtieth in rushing attempts (21.9) and twenty-seventh rushing yards (93.6). The Offensive Line, which has long been an issue in Indianapolis, has played a huge role in these problems; apart from proving unable to open holes consistently for Frank Gore (446 yards), and utterly failing in pass protection (15 sacks allowed), they’ve been among the most penalized groups in the NFL (56 penalties, 459 yards lost), while also leading the entire league in holding penalties. Penalties kill drives, and is it any wonder why this offense has been so scattershot in terms of moving the chains? Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the struggles of Luck, who has carried this franchise since being selected No. One Overall back in 2012. Under pressure all season, the fourth-year Quarterback as taken a ton of hits this season, forcing him to miss two games to rest an ailing shoulder, while also sustaining fractured ribs upon returning to the field. As expected, his play suffered for it; Luck has seen his completion percentage (56.2%), yards per attempt (6.7), passer rating (76.3) all decline significantly, while his interception percentage (4.3%) and sack percentage (5.4%) have increased dramatically. The bottom line is that this guy is playing hurt, and he doesn’t have nearly the support around him to mask these weaknesses. That goes for the defense as well, which was supposed to take another step forward with the healthy return of Edge Rusher Robert Mathis and the addition of Trent Cole. Instead, Pagano and Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky have seen their defensive unit collectively underperform at an alarming level; through seven games the Colts have allowed the second-most yards in the league (408.6), including the third-most passing yards (285.9) on 7.1 net yards per attempt (25th Overall), and 122.7 rushing yards (22nd Overall). Furthermore, they’ve hardly mustered much of a pass-rush (ten sacks), while their seven takeaways is the sixth-fewest total in the NFL. So is it any wonder that both Pagano and General Manager Ryan Grigson are both reportedly on the chopping block? Indeed, expectations can be a mother@#$%^&, and failing to meet them often results in rolling heads.
Meanwhile, while one team has struggled mightily in the face of adversity, the Panthers (6-0, 1st in NFC South) have reveled in it. Off to their best start in franchise history, Ron Rivera’s charges have demonstrated a resolve that has many around the league thinking his team could be the dark horse contender to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLX. Think about it for a second, folks; after becoming the first team in NFC South history to win back-to-back division titles since realignment back in 2002, Carolina suffered a litany of offseason losses, including Defensive End Greg Hardy (Free Agency) and Left Tackle Jordan Gross (Retirement), while both Defensive End Charles Johnson and Wide Receiver Kelvin Benjamin landed on Injured Reserve before Opening Day. That’s their top two edge-rushers, their top pass protector, and their leading receiver all gone before kickoff of Week One. And somehow, someway, they appear to be far better without them. Waitaminute, what? Through six games, the Panthers have bested their opponents by an average margin of 8.7 points per game (4th Overall), on the strength of an improving offense and a nasty defense. Kudos to Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula, who has cultivated impressive production from a unit featuring a reshuffled Offensive Line and void of playmakers in the Receiving Corps. Then again, with Cam Newton under center, a lot of those things get covered up. Now in his fifth season in the league, the former Heisman winner and No. One Overall Pick is really beginning to exhibit the massive potential he displayed while at Auburn. The 26-year old has completed 55.8% of his passes for an average of 212.5 yards per game on 6.23 net yards per attempt, tossing nine touchdowns to seven interceptions, while also continuing to prove lethal with his legs, rushing for another 40.8 yards on 4.5 yards per carry, and four more scores. Granted, turnovers have been a problem the past two weeks (five interceptions), but they haven’t deterred him from making huge plays in the latter stages of those contests. Case in point; two weeks ago at Seattle, Newton rallied the troops back from a 23-14 deficit with a marvelous display in the fourth-quarter, culminating in a stunning 26-yard touchdown toss to Tight End Greg Olsen against the Seahawks’ vaunted Secondary. An 80-yard touchdown drive in which he went 6-for-6 passing with just over two minutes remaining in the game is impressive unto itself, let alone the fact that it came at CenturyLink Field against the two-time defending NFC Champions.
However, Newton isn’t alone in this unbeaten run in Carolina, for a number of players have risen to the occasion thus far. Tailback Jonathan Stewart has overcome nagging injuries to lead the team with 70.5 rushing yards per game, including a season-high 125 yards in last week’s 27-16 victory over the Eagles. The aforementioned Olsen continues to be the focal point in the passing game, leading the Receiving Corps with twenty-seven receptions for 439 yards (16.3) and three touchdowns, while Ted Ginn has returned for a second stint with the Panthers, providing some needed support for Olsen, reeling in eighteen balls for 283 yards (15.7) and three scores. Historically a Kick Return Specialist, Ginn has flourished in this scheme, evidenced by the connection he and Newton have shared. Let’s not forget the Offensive Line, which despite shuffling players in and out this season, has managed to not only keep Newton relatively clean (eleven sacks), but propel the Panthers to the league’s top-ranked rushing attack; averaging a robust 144.7 yards per game on the ground, no team has ran the ball more than Rivera’s charges and racked up as many yards as a result. In last Sunday’s victory over Philadelphia, they trampled a defensive front that had been playing at a high level to the tune of 204 yards and a pair of touchdowns on thirty-three carries. It will be interesting to see if they can continue to play at such a level with reported injuries to Offensive Tackle Daryl Williams (knee), Guard Mike Remmers (elbow), and Center Ryan Kalil (ankle), who are all listed as Questionable for tonight’s tilt. With that said, arguably the biggest reason for this team’s sustained success has been the defense, which Rivera and Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott have evolved into a beast. The Panthers’ defense being great is by no means something new, but given the number of losses they incurred in the offseason, many around the league felt that this unit would struggle, if not take a step back altogether. Well, that hasn’t been the case. Who needs Greg Hardy? Who needs Charles Johnson? Certainly not these guys, who continue to rank among the league’s elite in a number of categories; Carolina has allowed just 18.3 points (5th Overall) on 345.3 yards (10th Overall), including 235.3 yards versus the pass (12th Overall) on a scant 5.2 net yards per attempt (2nd Overall), along with 110.0 yards against the rush (18th Overall) on 4.3 yards per carry (21st Overall). Furthermore, they have forced a dozen turnovers (6th Overall), including nine interceptions (3rd Overall), two of which have been returned for touchdowns. The pass-rush hasn’t suffered without the likes of Hardy and Johnson, with the Panthers totaling eighteen sacks Defensive Tackle Kawaan Short leading the way with five takedowns. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have been tackling machines, with three sacks and a pair of interceptions between them, but by far and away the most impressive Panthers’ defender has been Cornerback Josh Norman, who has ascended the ladder of elite Cornerbacks in the NFL seemingly overnight. The former fifth-round pick has exploded onto the scene in this, his fourth season in the NFL, logging four interceptions (two returned for scores) and ten pass deflections in just six games. At 6-0, 203 lbs, Norman uses his outstanding length to smother opposing receivers. Andrew Luck may want to be wary of throwing the ball anywhere near this kid…