Panthers vs. Cardinals 2013: Another barometer game for Carolina

Let Cam be Cam! - Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers are one of the strangest teams to understand, playing in one of the most bizarre seasons imaginable.

The Carolina Panthers face the Arizona Cardinals in the first late game of the season. On paper it's a contest the Panthers should win, but this year has been anything but predictable.

Sunday's game is another barometer for the Carolina Panthers, which really shouldn't be happening in week five of the regular season -- but it's a byproduct of a team without a clear identity. Weeks one and two we saw a ground-heavy offense with few offensive risks, followed by a week three game full of risks and big plays.

It's a question of desire vs. results. Ron Rivera might want a low-risk, conservative football team who grinds down the clock -- but that's not the team he has. Hopefully the bye week gave him time to reflect on his players are realize that wins will come from letting the team operate outside his comfort zone. It's not easy to cede control like that, but making this Cam's team is the only way the Panthers will win.

Run game: A tale of two cities

The Carolina Panthers are running the ball very well with DeAngelo Williams. The blocking up front has been stout, and Williams is on pace for his first 1,000 yard season since 2009.

This will be a fascinating contest -- as the Cardinals are one of the NFL's best run-stopping teams. They allow just 75.0 yards per game, just 3.0 yards per carry. Forget what you think you know about Arizona. They are an extremely talented defensive team with an offense that can't always hold up its end of the bargain -- where have we heard that before?

Arizona can't run the football. Rashard Mendenhall is leading the team in rushing, but averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. The team's offensive line isn't built to block down-field, and it shows. Andre Ellington is an x-factor on third down, but the Panthers should win this battle.

Both the Carolina Panthers are Arizona Cardinals boast top-ten run defenses, but only the Panthers can hang their hat on an elite offensive running game. It might not be a huge week for DeAngelo Williams, but it doesn't need to be.

Edge: Panthers

Pass game: Lessons learned, hopefully

Carolina is the worst passing team in the NFL. Averaging just 170 yards puts them 32nd, but Cam Newton has found the end zone -- throwing for six passing touchdowns with a bye week to boot.

Everything hinges on whether the Panthers learned their lesson. The deep pass to Ted Ginn, trusting Brandon LaFell -- these were the keys to beating the New York Giants. If those factors continue to mature in Glendale the Panthers will be back on track, if they regress the team will falter.

Arizona isn't great at rushing the passer, but the team has a stout secondary. Patrick Peterson is a play maker at the position, on pace for eight interceptions while Tyrann Mathieu was one of the draft's biggest steals. His maturation has been great to see, and Mathieu is used perfectly as a defensive Swiss Army knife. He has 29 tackles (28 solo), 1 interception and 1 forced fumble. If he's used to spy Cam Newton it will be the most fascinating David and Goliath match-up of the weekend.

Carson Palmer has been letting his team down. He's had time in the pocket, has the receiving corps, but keeps making bone-headed mistakes -- poised for 24 interceptions on the year. In many ways the passing game is a carbon-copy of that seen from the Giants. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are both having great seasons, but too many drives are being stalled out by a lack of effective running and poor decision making.

Carolina's pass defense isn't terrible, but it's not good either. Everything hinges on the defensive front to overwhelm opponents with pressure -- but Arizona is allowing just 2.5 sacks per game. The line hasn't faced anything like the Panthers' pass rush, but winning this battle up front is key to winning the game.

Edge: Cardinals

Final thoughts

In many ways the Cardinals are an upgraded version of the New York Giants. If the line is able to protect Carson Palmer he has the receivers to decimate Carolina's secondary, but turning the ball over will be Arizona's death knell.

I'm having faith that the Panthers worked out why they won in week three, and will continue to press their strengths. If Cam Newton can run the offense and use his legs this team is tough to stop. Arizona has a talented 53-man roster, but the Panthers have more talent. Here's to coaches staying out of the way.

Carolina Panthers victory

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