The Carolina Panthers' defense has been vastly improved this season, but all too often we've seen the makeshift unit give up huge gains late, ultimately leading to all too many losses. With a spate of injuries, and a interior defensive line lacking talent the Panthers are in for a test this week.
A high school reunion follows one of three pre-determined paths: Either you don't attend, choosing to never see those people ever again. You decide to go, find your old cliques, and manage to have a pretty decent time under bizarre circumstances. Then there's the third path, the one Ron Rivera and Norv Turner find themselves in on Sunday. In this scenario you go to the reunion, and realize that everyone's lives have gone to crap -- accepting defeat, before you know it you're doing body shots at the local Applebees, while the high school quarterback (who's now successfully managing an unsuccessful tire store) is throwing up Southwest egg rolls into a potted plant, barely covered by a promotion for Guy Fieri's "Sock-a-rooni salad" -- a featured menu item. Mutually-accepted destruction, and Applebees takes the form of Qualcomm stadium.
Perhaps Norv Turner and Ron Rivera will look though a photo album. Happier times, where the defense was stifling, the offense was clicking -- and routine AFC playoff appearances were the norm. Now it would take a small miracle for both coaching staffs to have jobs in 2013.
X-Factor: D.J. Campbell
It's strange to imagine that the seventh-round rookie safety finds himself as a pivotal part of Sunday's game, but after being thrust into the starting lineup it's apropos. Charles Godfrey is moving to free safety -- which is a good position for him, which means it falls on Campbell to deal with Antonio Gates, and talented receivers going over the middle.
Last week against the Atlanta Falcons, D.J. Campbell was sensational. Charged with stopping Tony Gonzalez over the middle, as well as assisting with Julio Jones, it should have gone terribly -- and yet it didn't. The rookie was a huge reason why Matt Ryan lost a side of the field.
It's almost impossible to really know how this will go, but I do know that Philip Rivers has been losing the safety this season. Uncharacteristically, he's missed the lurking defensive back, which is contributing to his 15 interceptions this season, on pace for the second-most of his career. Despite this, saying Campbell has the edge is more hope than reality.
San Diego run offense vs. Carolina run defense
Ryan Mathews was supposed to become 'the guy'. One thing A.J. Smith has done extremely well as general manager is add running backs to the Chargers' roster. He drafted Michael Turner is 2004, selected Darren Sproles in 2005, and signed Mike Tolbert in 2008 -- Mathews was poised to be the next in line.
Following a 2011 season that saw the second-year running back total 1,091 yards and six touchdowns, it looked like Mathews was poised to follow in a line of success. However, with issues on the offensive line, paired with questions arising about his ability, Ryan Mathews has just 3.8 yards per carry, and only a single touchdown on the season.
In the past it was even money to bet on Carolina failing to stop a North-South back, but after stopping Michael Turner last week, and Marshawn Lynch failing against the Panthers -- maybe the run defense is finally getting on track.
San Diego pass offense vs. Carolina pass defense
Philip Rivers has been sacked 37 times in 13 games -- that says everything you need to know.
The inability of the Chargers to protect Rivers has been a large reason why San Diego have struggled down the stretch, and with Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson hitting their stride it's likely Carolina's pass rush will have success this week.
It's the secondary that remains a huge question for Carolina. Ron Rivera is making a smart decision to try different combinations of players, and throwing what they have at the wall, but this also increases the potential of the secondary failing. Since parting ways with Vincent Jackson the Chargers have used a variety of receivers, but lack that one main weapon.
This feels like a game where the makeshift secondary could be exposed, but after thriving against Atlanta there's a good chance they can succeed again.
Cam Newton is a axis for everything, and he's been on a tear. Sunday's game has a chance to be a high-scoring game due to Carolina's lacking defense, but I don't think the Chargers have a good answer to stop Newton.
Carolina Panthers 27 - San Diego Chargers 20
2012 pick prediction: 8-5