It's a battle between two teams in very different divisions as the St. Louis Rams are hoping they can gain some ground in the NFC West, while the Carolina Panthers try to set up a late-season push and catch the New Orleans Saints in the South.
The Rams and Panthers are strange bedfellows. Sunday's game will be the first time Sam Bradford and Cam Newton will play against each other since they were selected with the first overall picks in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Quarterback play will be vitally important, but with high-powered pass rushers this game could come down to running the ball effectively and preventing big plays.
The biggest mistake the Panthers' defense can make is looking past Bradford. St. Louis doesn't have a deep passing game, but they know how to efficiently move the ball down the field -- something Carolina has struggled with in 2013. The Rams' quarterback is on pace for over 3,800 passing yards and 35 touchdowns, all while taking care of the football -- throwing just three interceptions this season.
This is a hard game to scheme for because of the large array of mediocre weapons the Rams have. This isn't intended as a knock to St. Louis, but they lack a single focal point the Panthers can key on. A variety of capable receivers will stretch Carolina's secondary, all of whom have big game potential.
Enter Cam Newton, who's finally starting to put it all together in 2013. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula seems to have learned how to use Newton, while Ron Rivera is finally allowing his quarterback to take risks. The Rams have a talented duo of cornerbacks in Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, even if Finnegan is struggling in 2013.
It's a case of short range passing with deep threats from Carolina facing a Rams team that knows how to work its mid-range, chain-moving passing. Both teams have excellent defensive lines, but St. Louis has the offensive line and secondary advantage.
There have been a lot of faults from Mike Shula in the passing game early this season, but he's shown his chops as a run-first offensive coordinator. DeAngelo Williams is playing very good football, while Kenjon Barner could be used as a change of pace back this week if healthy. It appears the Panthers are still a couple of weeks away from seeing Jonathan Stewart, but Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton have the ability to hold down the need for short-yardage gains.
St. Louis runs a two-back system, but have a serious weakness in Daryl Richardson. Zac Stacy has been far better as a starter, but missed practice Wednesday with a chest injury. If Stacy can play the Rams get a huge lift -- his 4.9 yards per carry leads the team and is coming off back-to-back 75 yard rushing games.
Ultimately the Panthers have a lot more running weapons and ways they get their rushers into space. Williams/Newton/Tolbert is a much better combination that Richardson/Stacy, which could be a huge difference maker on Sunday.
The consistently inconsistent Panthers have been a Jekyll and Hyde team in 2013. At times they've looked dominant, while this is also the same team that dropped an embarrassing game to Arizona.
That being said, it feels like Carolina is finally starting to put it all together. Cam Newton has bounced back after his struggles in Arizona, while the defense continues to generate turnovers and not allow points. The big play potential of the Panthers' offense, paired with its ability to play a successful clock control game should be enough to mitigate the Rams offense.
Sunday will be a very close game between two teams in a similar position, but the gambling Panthers are playing to their strengths and will carry confidence into Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina Panthers 28, St. Louis Rams 17