This week marks an interesting match-up for the Carolina Panthers. In a lot of ways they're lucky to be facing somewhat of a wounded tiger; Matt Schaub is still out, and this week Wade Phillips will not be calling the defensive plays for the Texans due to medical leave. If there's ever a time for Carolina to steal a win it's now, but as we've experienced that's oftentimes easier said than done.
Sitting at 10-3 Houston are locked in a battle for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They're one of four teams who sit at the same record, and as we've seen in the past dome teams have a lot to play for in these situations, as they don't typically travel well during the playoffs. If you were hoping the Texans would coast having locked up the AFC South then think again.
X-Factor: The offensive line
Banged up, bruised and lacking reliable backup talent- there are numerous ways to characterize the Panthers' OL, but perhaps 'up and down' is the most apt. When Jordan Gross is on the field and Carolina have their full compliment of starters this OL is as good as any in football. However, with Byron Bell on the right side and Travelle Wharton at LT they have issues. Bell tends to make rookie mistakes, and while Wharton has the lateral speed needed to play tackle he's not good on the left side.
Enter the Houston pass rush who have totaled 36 sacks and 10 FF in 2011. Wade Phillips' complicated blitz packages are disguised well and very hard for both quarterbacks and the OL to pick up on. Six players on the Texans' defense have more than three sacks with Connor Barwin, Antonio Smith and JJ Watt leading the charge. Cam Newton will need to do an excellent job at the line of scrimmage identifying blitz packages, and the OL will need to be on point to pick up every blitzer. When it's all said and done I think it will be a little too much for our OL to handle.
Carolina pass offense Vs. Houston pass defense
Not only are the Texans allowing the 3rd fewest yards through the air and being tied 5th in interceptions (17) , but moreover the Houston defense should be viewed like the Panthers' offense, which makes this such a curious aspect to the game. As meteoric as the rise in Carolina's offense under Rob Chudzinski, so too has Wade Phillips completely turned this group on their head. Between a stout pass rush getting after the QB and ball hawks at corner it will be a real test of Cam's mettle on Sunday.
At times Newton will be able to overcome it all. I like Steve Smith to get the better of Jonathan Joseph, provided Newton is able to get him the ball and I think Brandon LaFell can get his big catches down field. My fear this week is the nullification of the TEs; Houston have an extremely fast, talented group of linebackers who are very good at covering tight ends, if Newton loses his safety valves it could get ugly. One hopes that to counteract this Chud will use a heavy dose of Double Trouble on screen and swing passes, this is one area the Panthers can succeed in.
Carolina run offense Vs. Houston run defense
On paper the Texans' 4th ranked run defense seems like a monster, and to a degree it is, however, it's not impenetrable. Houston have allowed 8 runs of 20+ yards, and allowing 4.1 YPC. Neither of these numbers are as stellar as their overall ranking would indicate. That allowance of big runs plays right into DeAngelo Williams' hands, and the high YPC is Jonathan Stewart's forte. The Panthers will need both players on point in order to take some pressure of Cam and open up the offense.
The fear, however, is that Carolina could easily be in a situation where they have to play from behind. I don't exactly trust the defense to stuff Arian Foster (we'll get to that tomorrow) and overall the whole situation could be one where the Panthers are forced to throw because of necessity. When it's all said and done I think this aspect of the game could be pretty close.
Tomorrow I'll look at the Panthers defensive chances.