Both of these teams have been surprises this season. The Redskins have been competitive in the NFC East despite looking extremely dysfunctional during the offseason with the RG3 issues. Carolina have exceeded expectations by going 9-0 despite Cam Newton not having anyone to throw to. The Redskins continue to hang around in the NFC East. Despite Washington’s struggles, their divisional rivals haven’t made a clean break at the top. Kirk Cousins is playing well surrounded by a good offense, and the defense has helped them win some games. Can the Redskins prove that they are a legitimate post-season contender by upsetting Carolina? Carolina have fought their way through the league to 9-0 despite a severely limited offense. Cam Newton has built a compelling MVP case by keeping Carolina’s offense competitive, while the defense is one of the league’s best and is built for the playoffs.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Can Washington stop the run?
Over the first few weeks of the season, the Redskins seemed to succeed by controlling the line of scrimmage and stopping opponents from running the ball. Over recent weeks, they have struggled to stop the run. From Week 5 to Week 9, the Redskins allowed a 100 yard rusher in all of their games during that stretch; Devonta Freeman, Chris Ivory, Doug Martin, and LeGarrette Blount. They need to stop Jonathan Stewart and Carolina’s running game this week to have a chance at winning. They also need to contain Cam Newton in the pocket unless they want him to take off and start dancing again.
2. Will Washington’s offense have another good game?
This seems unlikely. Last week the Redskins played an atrocious Saints defense which allowed Kirk Cousins to put up big numbers. Facing Carolina’s defense is a completely different story. The Panthers have allowed just two 300 yard passers and one 100 yard rusher this season. With Washington’s running game struggling in recent games, the Redskins will struggle to make an impact on Sunday.
3. Protecting Kirk Cousins
It doesn’t help that Washington’s offensive line has been in a state of flux this season due to injuries. The group hasn’t had much time to commit to a single line-up. Against Carolina’s pass rush, that will be an issue. Luke Kuechly is one of the league’s best all-round linebackers, and defensive tackle Kawann Short has emerged as a pass rushing threat this season. Veteran Jared Allen can also still contribute as a pass rusher in some situations. If Cousins can’t get the ball out quickly because his receivers are covered by Josh Norman and Co., the Redskins will struggle to keep him upright. And even if Cousins manages to get quick safe balls to running backs in the flat etc, Kuechly and Carolina’s line-backing corps will shut that down quickly.
Matchup to watch: DeSean Jackson vs Josh Norman
DeSean Jackson’s return gives the Redskins another vertical receiving threat on the perimeter. Josh Norman has emerged as a shut-down corner this season in Carolina’s zone scheme. The battle between the two could decide the outcome of the game. To have a chance against the Panthers, Washington will likely need to spread the field out and target Carolina’s young secondary. With players like Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed and Pierre Garcon, Jackson has a lot of team-mates that can take pressure away so he can scream up the sideline for the big play. Norman’s ability to control that will be a huge factor.
With Washington needing to stretch the field against Carolina, that places a lot of pressure on Kirk Cousins. Against a strong defense like the Panthers and without much help from the running game or the offensive line, it will be tough for Cousins to carry the team on his back. Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart will present problems for Washington’s defense, keeping the Panthers on track by going 10-0.