Along with Johnny Football and Big Ben, the Carolina Panthers have the pleasure of playing the NFC North this season. That means the Panthers will also get to face Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Forte over the course of the season. The NFC North is traditionally a deep division and either the Packers, Lions, or Bears could be playoff teams.
Location- Bank of America Stadium
The Lions come to town two weeks in, and this is a big year for them. If Jim Schwartz was truly the problem for the Lions, then this the year where they should make the leap. On offense the Lions ride the arm of Matt Stafford, and they gave him two new weapons in the off season, receiver Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron. Pair them with Megatron, and Stafford might throw for 5,000 yards again. The ground is more finicky with Reggie Bush as the main threat. This game will be an early test of the Panthers pass rush and secondary. Stafford can’t throw it if he is on his back.
Defensively, the strength of the Lions is its defensive line. The line is anchored by Ndamukong Suh, so this might also be an early test of Cam’s health and his relationship with his receiving corps. The Panthers never want to be in a shootout scenario with anybody, much less the Lions. Therefore the defense will be the offense’s best friend in this game.
Location- Bank of America Stadium
How time flies. It is been normal to think of the Bears as a defense first team, but now they have offensive weapons and their defensive parts are aging. Urlacher is gone, has been since before last season. So is Peppers. The Panthers need to establish their run game in this one and keep the ball away from the Bears offense. This would be a Jonathan Stewart game, if he is up for it.
On offense, Jay Cutler has a big new contract and big receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey. Matt Forte is not bad out of the back field either. The traditional weakness of the Bears has been their offensive line. The Panthers need to stop Forte and then put Cutler on his back. Cutler is one of the most sacked quarterbacks over the past few years, so it should ruffle him a bit. Keeping the tackles in the secondary low is the key to this game.
Green Bay Packers
Location- Lambeau Field (Green Bay, WI)
The Packers are considered the class of the division, but even they are not flawless. Someone forgot to give nose tackle BJ Raji a discount doublecheck. He tore his biceps and his out for the season. He was the great plug in the 3-4 scheme of Dom Capers. 3-4s have to have nose tackles like Raji or the Patriots’ Vince Wilfork to function properly. The Panthers should run it right up the gut to see how well the replacement functions. With Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews lurking, it would be best to keep on the time table to avoid obvious passing situations.
The Packers offense is more balanced with the emergence of Eddie Lacy at running back, but the real threat remains Aaron Rodgers. The more pressure the better. The Panthers can certain do that with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Otherwise the secondary stays busy and the Panthers have to win a shootout, which they are not designed for.
Location- TCF Bank Stadium (Minneapolis, MN)
Finally, an offense that most likely would not tempt the Panthers into a shootout. The Vikings are still dependent on Adrian Peterson. Stop Peterson and you stop the Vikings. Matt Cassel isn’t likely to beat you unless you beat yourself. It is possible Teddy Bridgewater could be the quarterback at this point, but he is more or less an unknown quantity. It is also possible there will be snow on the ground, limiting the style of play.
For the Panthers, the true worry is what Mike Zimmer does with the defense between now and Thanksgiving. Right now, the Viking defense has some pieces but it is not scary. If they mesh in the style of their new coach, they could get that way. This could another game where the tight ends come into focus as key players. This could also be a game where Kelvin Benjamin plays a big role. If it does not snow of course.
Tomorrow we look at our division rivals as we keep gearing up for Sunday at Tampa.
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