The Panthers and the Jets are two clubs that have a lot in common. Both teams started 2009 with high expectations, yet sit at 4-6 in November. Neither team has an offensive identity, despite having strong rushing attacks, and each has a defense that looks good on paper, but isn't able to close a game. The big difference is that the Jets started 3-0 and have gone 1-6 since, while the Panthers started 0-3 and have since gone 4-3.
Neither team can afford to lose this game if they want to stay in contention for the playoffs. The Panthers are two games out of a wild card spot, while the Jets are three games behind the Patriots in the AFC East and on the outside looking in as far as a wildcard spot is concerned.
Both teams like to run, and each runs well. Both also feature quarterbacks that are among the most intercepted in the league. In that matchup though, Carolina may have a slight edge, as Jake Delhomme has only thrown one interception in his last four games, while Mark Sanchez threw four interceptions last week against the Patriots. But quarterback play will likely be the difference Sunday, with victory going to the one who makes the fewest mistakes.
When the Jets have the ball
After a strong start, Mark Sanchez (138/265, 1791 yards, 10 TDs, 16 INTs) started struggling with the speed of the NFL game and interceptions quickly followed. He's thrown 14 interceptions in the last six games. His receivers are having trouble getting open, and the Jets can't find the end zone through the air, with only ten passing touchdowns on the year.
New York has some talent at Wide Receiver in Jericho Cotchery (36 rec, 582 yards, 3 TDs) and Braylon Edwards (27 rec, 420 yards, 2 TDs), but neither have put up big numbers this year. Tight End Dustin Keller (32 rec, 385 yards, 2 TDs) is having a decent second year and should find some open space against the Panther's defense, given their issues at linebacker. But that depends on Sanchez' ability to find him, and to accurately deliver the pass. New York just can't count on that right now.
That leaves the Jets with their strong running attack. Both Thomas Jones (191 carries, 884 yards, 8 TDs) and Leon Washington (72 carries, 331 yards) average 4.6 yards per carry, and as a team the Jets are ranked second in the NFL at running the ball. When you consider that the Panther's rushing defense is 26th, that makes the game plan pretty simple. Last week Ricky Williams dominated the Panthers D, and Thomas Jones can be every bit as good.
The Jets will likely open up with a short passing game mixed in with a heavy dose of the run. If they can get Sanchez some confidence at home, then that will open up the play-action and prevent the Panthers from dictating what the Jets do on offense.
So the question for the Jets is simple. If the Panthers load the box, can Sanchez make them pay? And for the Panthers, it's not just simple but brutal for the asking. Will they be able to prevent the Jets from running even when they know it's coming? It's not something that should be a problem, but you have to ask given their performance against the Dolphins.
When the Panthers have the ball
Jake Delhomme (164/287, 1885 yards, 8 TDs, 14 INTs) had the worst start to the season that can be imagined, and he wasn't particularly good during the first half against the Dolphins either. But despite his poor numbers, he's shown signs of a return to last season's form in the past few games. After having his hands tied against the Cardinals and Saints, the Panthers let him go versus the Falcons and Dolphins. Against the Falcons he did well, and despite his slow start against Miami he was able to find Steve Smith in the second half, and even engineered a couple of drives at the end of the game that gave the Panthers a chance.
In the passing game the Panthers have two huge and glaring problems. The first is the seeming disappearance of anything resembling accuracy in the long game. Despite what some critics say, Jake Delhomme has always had a strong arm. This season it looks a little too strong--he's been overthrowing receivers regularly, often to the delight of opposing defensive backs. The other main problem the Panthers have is their coaching staff's propensity to abandon the run too early and let Delhomme carry them. He's never been that kind of quarterback, even when playing well. This year the Panthers have already had five games where Delhomme has thrown 30 or more times, twice he's thrown over 40. The Panthers have lost all five of those contests.
That leaves the running game, where the Panthers boast the NFL's third ranked attack. As with the Jets, you would think that the game plan is obvious. But the Bills came to Charlotte with one of the worst rushing defenses in the league and one of the best passing defenses, and the Panthers decided to throw 44 times against them, so don't count on the obvious against the Jets.
DeAngelo Williams (181 carries, 982 yards, 7 TDs) and Jonathan Stewart (110 carries, 509 yards, 6 TDs) are easily one of the best running back tandems in the NFL. Even with Jordan Gross out against the Dolphins, the Panthers still ran effectively. In fact, they ran even better than normal as they went more to the right, where second year tackle Jeff Otah paves the way.
Like Miami, the Jets run a 3-4 defense. But unlike Miami, it's being dominated lately. Overall the Jets are 17th against the run, and third against the pass. But since Kris Jenkins went down they've really suffered. Without Jenkins pressure, their secondary has been exposed, giving up progressively more yards in each game since the injury.
Keys to the game
Home Field Advantage: The New York fans are bitter and angry at the Jets, but they're fiercely loyal as well. If the Jets come out strong they'll make a lot of noise and will make life difficult for the Panthers offense. But if the Jets are flat, then expect a chorus of boos and catcalls aimed at the rookie signal caller.
Identity: Both teams are looking for it, when it's right in front of their faces. These are two physical, run-first teams. Whichever one discovers who they are first will win this game going away. But if neither do, then it's going to be an ugly contest decided by the exact players you don't want to see in this contest--the quarterbacks.
Turnovers: For anyone who follows either team this year, this is obvious, and applies equally to both clubs. Whoever turns the ball over more will lose.
Pressure: Get to either passer, and watch your secondary pad it's stats. Sanchez has been sacked 17 times, Delhomme 20.
Coaching: Rex Ryan has done a terrible job managing his team's chemistry, and the locker room is a mess right now. John Fox doesn't have that problem, but his coordinators have both been inconsistent at game planning and adjusting.
Face it, these are two mediocre ball clubs that are going through the motions of playing for a ghost of a chance at the playoffs. This game is more about pride than positioning, and the players know it. But the Panthers have a history with their coach that the Jets lack, and the freedom of playing on the road where the crowd may be more hostile to the home team.
Don't expect either team to look sharp when the game starts. That's an advantage for Carolina, given the location. Look for each team to stubbornly rush the ball until one goes up by two scores, and then the air show will begin.
If the Panthers defense can find out what went wrong against the Dolphins, then Carolina wins this one going away. If not, then Jake will have 35 attempts, three interceptions, and the Jets will get a much needed win.
The spread is 3.0 points, but this game won't be that close.
Carolina 24, New York 10