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With Cam Newton & Christian McCaffrey, WFT won’t see the same Panthers team that went 5-5 to start the season

If Washington can followup the victory over Tampa Bay with a win in Carolina, it could be the start of another late-season run to the playoffs

NFL: SEP 12 Buccaneers at Panthers Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wildcard implications

Let me start this game preview with the assertion that Sunday’s matchup between Washington and Carolina has genuine playoff implications in the NFC, and that Washington is very much alive for a 6th or 7th seed in the NFC playoff picture, although I realize not a lot of people will see it that way.

To illustrate the point, however, let’s look at the NFC Conference standings:

The four division leaders are circled in blue. The Rams, at 7-3 and circled in green, are strongly positioned for a playoff spot as well. That makes 5 teams that appear close to being ‘locked in’ for the playoffs.

In the hunt

That leaves the 10 teams circled in red competing for two wildcard seedings. Only two games separate these ten teams, and the Panthers and Eagles (both ahead of Washington on this chart and both on WFT’s remaining schedule) have played 10 games, while the others have all played only nine.

Just suppose...

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Washington wins this week’s game, moving to 4-6 and dropping Carolina to 5-6. With 8 weeks left in the season, anything can happen in the wilcard race, but let’s imagine a ‘best case’ scenario just with the Week 11 games:

  • Saints play the Eagles — one team stays even while one falls back a game
  • Falcons lose to Patriots, falling to 4-6
  • Niners lose to Jaguars, falling to 4-6
  • Vikings lose to Packers, falling to 4-6
  • Bears lose to Ravens, falling to 3-7
  • Seahawks lose to Cardinals, falling to 3-7
  • Giants lose to Buccaneers, falling to 3-7

While getting all those outcomes isn’t realistic, only the SF loss would be an upset. If these results were to eventuate in Week 11, the wildcard race would change a lot:

  • Saints 6-4/5-5
  • Panthers 5-6
  • Falcons, Niners, Vikings, WFT 4-6
  • Eagles 4-7/5-6
  • Giants, Seahawks, Bears 3-7

Suddenly, Washington would be tied with the Vikings & 49ers, a half-game out of the #7 seed (ahead of Atlanta based on tie-breaker).

Again, I’m not trying to predict the playoff seedings at the end of this week; I am trying to illustrate how close Washington will be to a playoff seeding if they get a win over the Panthers on Sunday, and stress that, with 8 weeks remaining in the season, the only team in the NFC that is really out of the playoff race is Detroit.

I know that a lot of people have given up on the season and any hope of a late season surge, but this season was always going to be tougher in the first half. The Football Team has had a brutal road over the first ten weeks.

Take a look at the 14 teams that would be in the playoffs if they were to start today

Seven of those “playoff” teams are on the Washington Football Team’s 2021 schedule, and because Dallas is there twice, that’s for a total of 8 games against “playoff” teams (and 5 against division leaders) in this year’s 17-game season.

Also interesting to me is that 6 of Washington’s 9 games already played were against teams on this list, with Washington going 1-5 against those “playoff” teams.

Meanwhile, Washington is 2-1 against the other (“non-playoff”) teams on its schedule (Giants, Falcons and Broncos).

The path to a playoff seeding

With 8 games remaining, a potentially realistic goal, in my mind, would be to go 2-1 in the games against the “playoff” teams remaining on the schedule (Panthers & Cowboys) and 4-1 against the “non-playoff” teams (Seahawks, Raiders, Eagles (twice), and the Giants).

A 6-2 finish would probably get Washington into the playoffs as the #6 or #7 seed in the NFC.

For that to be possible, however, Washington has to beat Carolina in a road game this Sunday since a loss likely makes a winning record in 2021 a very dim possibility. A couple of weeks ago, with starting QB Sam Darnold not playing very well, Christian McCaffrey out injured, and the Panthers having lost 5 games in 6 weeks, that task didn’t seem overly-challenging.

But this past Sunday, Carolina looked at least as good against the Kyler Murray-less Cardinals as Washington did against the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers, setting up a tough and interesting Week 11 matchup with wildcard implications.

Let me be clear — there is no path to the playoffs that relies on Washington playing like they did in the first 8 weeks of the season. The only way Washington wins enough to get there, and gets there with the chance of winning in the postseason, is to play the way they did against Tampa Bay. Ron Rivera has been saying for the past month that he was seeing progress, and this past Sunday, all three phases — defense, offense and special teams — did what was necessary to beat one of the NFC’s best teams. Aside from Dallas, I don’t think there’s any team left on Washington’s schedule that is as good as Tampa Bay, meaning that if the team has figured it out and plays well, then there are genuine possibilities remaining for a successful season, much like there were in 2020.

So, what can we expect from Carolina on Sunday?

In evaluating what we’re likely to see from Carolina in this game, I’ll focus on the season-long trends for Carolina’s defense, but will rely more heavily on what happened in the Arizona game (and to some extent, what Cam did last year in New England) to try to project what we can expect from the Panther’s offense.

Defense

Total yards per game

The Carolina defense appears to be made of pretty stern stuff. They rank 2nd in the NFL in yards per game surrendered at just 280.7. Interestingly, Washington has already played the teams ranked #1 (Buffalo, 274.1), #3 (Packers, 309.9), #7 (Broncos, 328.2), #9 (Buccaneers, 334.0), and #10 (Saints, 337.8), going 1-4 against those opponents. Washington’s other wins came against Atlanta and New York; both teams are in the bottom-third of the league in yards per game surrendered by the defense.

Rush & pass defense

Carolina actually ranks #1 in passing yards allowed per game, while they are relatively more vulnerable against the run, where they are ranked 12th in the NFL, giving up 107 yards per game. By contrast, Washington is #6 versus the rush, allowing just 97 rushing yards per game, while the Saints, Bucs & Bills sit at the top of the league at Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively.

Points per game

The Panthers rank 6th in points per game given up, at 19.3 (Washington is 28th at 27.3). Carolina seems to be getting even tougher to score on, as the average points they have given up over the past 3 games is just 15.7 points per game, and they surrendered just 10 points to the Cardinals last week.

Third down percentage

They are 4th in the league in 3rd down percentage allowed at 33.06%. This is a place where Washington’s offense has been vulnerable all year (ranked 19th at 38.46%), but the Football Team had a huge turnaround here in Week 10 against Tampa Bay when they ranked 3rd in the NFL with a one-game conversion rate of 57.89%. (By the way, Washington’s defense is last in the league, allowing a staggering 55.2% conversion rate on 3rd downs; the next-worst is Atlanta at 47.3%. Again, WFT improved markedly vs. the Bucs, holding Tom Brady’s offense to 40% conversion rate).

Red zone defense

The one area where the Panthers defense seems vulnerable is their red zone defense, where they rank 30th in the league at 73.91% touchdowns-allowed percentage. In other words, teams struggle to make it to the red zone against Carolina, but once they do, they tend to score touchdowns. Recent games haven’t seen Carolina doing any better, giving up 80% over the past 3 games and 100% last week to the Cardinals.

I’m not sure that Washington will be able to have a ton of success against the Carolina Panthers defense. The key will likely be to run the ball well, attempt to control the clock, score on every red zone trip, use the punting game to try to control field position, and cross your fingers and hope that the Washington defense shows up and plays hard.

Points scored by Carolina in wins & losses

But the ten games the Panthers have played so far indicate that Washington’s offense will have to score three touchdowns or more to win. In Carolina’s 5 losses, their opponents have averaged 28 points per game, and none of their victorious opponents has scored less than 21 points. Meanwhile, in the Panthers’ 5 wins, their opponents have averaged just 9.8 points per game, and none of the losing teams has scored over 14 points.

In other words, Washington isn’t likely to win a very low scoring contest. The Panthers have already won two games this season when the Carolina offense scored just 19 points (19-14 against the Jets and 19-13 against the Falcons). Taylor Heinicke and the rest of the offense will need to aim for 24+ points and hope that the Football Team defense that shows up is the one that beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, and not the one that played in Weeks 1-8.

Sweat & Young

For anyone who is tempted to bemoan the loss of our two starting DEs to injury as a reason why the defense is unlikely to perform, let me remind you that Washington’s best defensive performance of the season came with Montez Sweat sidelined for the entire game and Chase Young absent for the second half. The problem with the defense through the first 8 weeks was the secondary; if the back half of the defense shows up to play like they did last Sunday, I believe that the defensive line can get the job done, even with backups playing at both DE positions.

Christian McCaffrey

One reason that the defense is going to have to show up and play hard is the return of Christian McCaffrey, who injured a hamstring in Week 3 and has just returned to full health.

In Week 9 against the Patriots, the running back had 18 touches for 106 yards (5.88 avg). Last week against the Cardinals, McCaffrey had 23 touches for 161 yards (7.0 avg), with the 5 extra touches coming in the passing game.

Four teams have faced McCaffrey this season, and none has stopped him. New Orleans, New England and Arizona are all top-ten defenses.

McCaffrey as a runner

Chuba Hubbard is the team’s leading rusher (120 attempts, 421 yards), but he is averaging 3.5 ypa, while McCaffery, 2nd overall in rushing yards, is averaging 4.4 ypa. (For comparison, Antonio Gibson has 135 attempts for 506 yards in one less game).

McCaffrey as a pass-catcher

D.J. Moore leads the Panthers in receiving, with 57 receptions for 507 yards in 10 games (Terry McLaurin has 49 catches for 632 yards in 9 games). McCaffrey, amazingly, is the team’s 2nd leading receiver, despite having played less than half the offensive snaps for the season.

It should be clear how much the Panthers have missed McCaffrey, who is 2nd in rushing and receiving on the team. They are 3-1 in the games he has started and finished (4-1 in his starts). Carolina is 2-4 in games that McCaffrey has missed.

Hubbard and Moore are good players, but each is less productive than his counterpart on the Washington Football Team. The Washington defense will need to key on Christian McCaffery and try to keep him under 100 yards from scrimmage — something no team has been able to accomplish for a full game this season.

Cam Newton

On most teams, the return of a player like Christian McCaffrey would be the biggest X-factor in the game, but not so with the Carolina Panthers. After the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold in the offseason, he injured his shoulder against the Patriots in Week 9 and is now on injured reserve.

In a move that looked fairly desperate on the surface, the Panthers immediately went out and signed Cam Newton, who had been New England’s starter in 2020 before being cut when the Patriots drafted Mac Jones in April. Reports have indicated that head coach Jeff Rhule is preparing to start Newton on Sunday against Washington.

It’s hard to know what to expect from Cam Newton this week. He was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011. In 2015, he was the Offensive Player of the Year, League MVP, he was first-team All Pro, and he played in the Super Bowl. But all of that was a long time ago, and the 6’5”, 245 pound dual-threat quarterback has had more downs than ups in recent seasons.

2018

Shoulder problems limited him to 14 games in 2018, when he had the second-lowest rushing total of his career and the Panthers finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs.

2019

The following season, 2019, Newton appeared in only 2 games before going to IR with a Lisfranc injury. The Panthers, who had drafted Cam Newton first overall in 2011, released him prior to the 2020 season.

Last year in New England

Cam landed in New England last year after his release from the Panthers. He played 15 games and had — by far — the least productive passing season of his career, throwing for just 2,657 yards, 8 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. As a runner, Cam’s 2020 season was on-par with the rest of his career; he rushed for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Patriots finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs for only the 3rd time in this millennium.

Cam was released by the Patriots during final roster cuts, and did not play in an NFL game this season until last Sunday when he took a handful of snaps for the Panthers.

Last week vs. the Cardinals

In Arizona this past Sunday, Cam Newton was on the field for just 9 snaps. His two most notable plays came when he entered the game in goal-to-go situations, scoring both times. On his first snap of the season, he scored on a 2-yard run, and he added a second 2-yard touchdown on his first pass attempt of 2021.

On the day, Cam was 3-4 for 8 yards and a touchdown, and he ran 3 times for 14 yards and a TD. In very limited duty, it was an impressive day primarily because Cam’s two TDs helped Carolina to a dominating 34-10 win.

Which Cam Newton should we expect this week?

It’s one thing to come in for limited duty and score a pair of 2-yard touchdowns. It’s another thing entirely to lead a team to victory, especially after two months on the shelf.

If Washington faces the Cam Newton who struggled in New England last year, that will be a significantly different proposition from playing Cam Newton at his best, or anything approximating his best.

Here’s a look at Cam attempting a pass in the middle of the field against the Cardinals:

As you can see, the pass is badly behind the receiver, giving him no realistic chance of catching the ball. This is the kind of rust that can probably be expected from a quarterback who hasn’t played since limited snaps in preseason.

While Newton may struggle in the passing game, he was a highly effective runner last year for the Patriots, and he looked fully capable last week vs. Arizona. I suspect the Football Team may have more to fear from the running combinations of Cam, Christian and Chuba than they do the arm of the big quarterback.

Turnovers

One metric where Carolina has struggled in 2021 is offensive giveaways. They are ranked 28th in the NFL with 17 giveaways; 12 of those have been interceptions. Sam Darnold has a 7:11 TD:INT ratio this season, and P.J. Walker is 0:1.

The Panthers have had a negative turnover differential in every one of their 5 losses, and in none of their 5 wins. They are a combined -7 in the losses, and +2 in the wins (winning every game where the differential was zero).

They’ve given up between 1 and 3 interceptions in every loss this season, and had 0 or 1 interception in every win. This appears to be Carolina’s Achilles’ heel; if the defense can get at least one interception and achieve +2 turnover differential, a win seems likely.

Once again, it will require that the defense that showed up against Tampa Bay last week show up again, but they may be helped out a lot if 2020 Cam Newton shows up rusty and out-of-sync with his receivers. Washington’s best chance at a victory may rest with the defensive secondary feasting on a rusty and inaccurate Cam Newton being no more accurate a passer than Sam Darnold has been this season.

Bottom line

Washington should have plenty of motivation to play hard for the win in Carolina. Success would close the gap between the two teams by a full game in the wildcard race and give Washington the first tie-breaker. Add to that the ‘revenge factor’ for Ron Rivera, most of his staff, and a number of players, including both the starting and backup quarterbacks, and this has the makings of a 2021 watershed game if the Football Team can get the road win.

To get that win, I think they will have to score more than three touchdowns against one of the league’s elite defenses, and then hold the Panthers’ offense in check. The challenge there will likely come from Christian McCaffrey, who can probably only be slowed, not stopped, and Cam Newton, who is likely to be the biggest X-factor in the game for either team. If Cam Newton plays well, then it may be a long day for fans of the burgundy & gold, but if Newton struggles and the Washington secondary plays with the energy and skill they displayed last Sunday at FedEx Field, then the plane flight home could be rowdy and joyful.

Getting Logan Thomas and/or Ricky Seals-Jones back healthy would be a huge positive for the team. The familiarity that Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner have with the Carolina personnel may also count for a lot.

Defensively, turnovers — especially interceptions against Cam Newton — seem to be the most likely way to control the game and get the win.

Washington isn’t likely to win this game in a battle of field goals. Taylor Heinicke is going to need to drive the team into the red zone and finish with touchdowns at least three times on Sunday. In essence, to leave Carolina with a “W”, Washington will need to play very similarly to the way they played against the Buccaneers a few days ago.

That shouldn’t be too hard, should it?