The Washington Redskins are heavy favorites to lose Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. At time of writing, the Panthers are 7.5-point favorites, but good luck finding anybody outside of the DMV who is picking Washington in this game, except for perhaps the handful of analysts making "bold predictions."
The Redskins will probably lose. They're certainly not guaranteed a loss; in fact, I'd argue they have a much better chance against the 9-0 Panthers than they did against the (then) 7-0 New England Patriots. But they'll still probably lose.
The Panthers have a better offense and a better defense than the Redskins do, and that's even without a handful of key players who have been lost to injury, although that qualifier can be used by either side. No matter your feelings on whether or not Kirk Cousins in the quarterback for the future, if you think he's better than Cam Newton, well, you're wrong. The Panthers also have one of the league's top cornerbacks in Josh Norman, and perhaps the league's best linebacker in Luke Kuechly.
However, Carolina is not a flawless team, except for by record, and there are ways to beat the unbeaten Panthers. One such way is to take advantage of the Panthers' struggles in the third quarter.
The Redskins had serious issues in the third quarter earlier in the season, and they have since rectified those problems to some extent. The incredible comeback against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers certainly padded those numbers, but they've been better in the third quarter each of the past three games than they were early on.
On the other hand, the Panthers defense tends to get exposed in the third quarter.
For example, Carolina allows opponents to rush for 4.3 yards per carry in the first quarter, 3.8 in the second, 4.5 in the third and 3.3 in the fourth. In the passing game, Carolina allows opponents to pick up 4.1 yards per pass attempt in the first quarter, 5.7 in the second, 7.0 in the third and 6.0 in the fourth. Opposing quarterbacks complete 55.1 percent of passes against the Panthers in the first quarter, 56.7 percent in the second, a whopping 69 percent in the third and just 54.5 percent in the fourth.
Perhaps the most telling stat is the quarterback rating for each quarter: 53.3 in the first, 72.3 in the second, 90.1 in the third and 66.8 in the fourth.
The fourth quarter numbers are somewhat easy to explain — the score of the game generally dictates what plays you're going to run in the fourth, so if you're barely winning and trying to burn time, you'll run, or if you're down by a bunch, you'll throw — but the third quarter spike is tougher to explain.
These numbers should all be taken with a grain of salt, as opponents have run far fewer plays in the third quarter against the Panthers than they have in any other quarter (118 in the third, at least 148 in every other quarter). Also, each game can be so different from the last, and with just 16 games in a season, it's hard to ever establish much of a credible sample size. (In any of the three other major American sports leagues, 16 games represents less than a fifth of the season — patterns are just barely starting to emerge at that point.)
For example, the Panthers were defensively shoddy against the run in third quarters of 2014 (5.0 yards per carry compared to 4.6 or less in each of the other three quarters), but they were stout in pass defense (59.3 completion percentage compared to at least 64 percent in other quarters, and 5.3 yards per attempt compared to at least 6.5 in other quarters).
Here's where things get tricky with this season's numbers: The Panthers seem to get more risky in pass coverage come the second half. Though they've allowed four touchdowns through the air in third quarters, they've also picked off three passes. That's both more touchdowns and more interceptions than, say, the second quarter, in which they've faced 32 more passes. Those numbers suggest Carolina defensive backs are jumping routes more often in the third quarter, likely hoping for a game-changing play to set the tone or swing momentum for the remainder of the game.
So, again, while these numbers don't mean all that much, they represent at least a glimmer of a trend.
Most likely, Cousins will be throwing a whole lot in the second half, and the third quarter could very well be the one that decides the game. If Cousins makes the throws he's forced to make, Washington could wind up in a position to win the thing. If he falters, or his receivers falter (and they have regularly done so this season), the Panthers could blow the game up in the third quarter and turn it to a laugher by the fourth.
Stats and information via Pro-Football-Reference