Panthers-Packers matchup big test for both teams

Publish date:

Peyton returns to Indy. The Raiders and Steelers renew their long-standing and often nasty rivalry. Intriguing matchups both.

Yet the spotlight this weekend shines on Charlotte, where the unbeaten Panthers host the 6-1 Packers, with the winner getting the inside track for the top rung in the NFC.

Green Bay comes off, by far, its worst performance of the season, a 29-10 drubbing at Denver in which even Aaron Rodgers looked pedestrian.

The Panthers weren't exactly lights-out on Monday night in their rain-soaked 29-26 victory over Indianapolis that required overtime after Carolina blew a big lead.

Considering the strengths of their coaching staffs and rosters, expect both sides to be far more efficient for 60 minutes on Sunday.

''We have stressed to young guys that if you play this game long enough, regardless of how good you are or how well you prepare, bad things are going to happen if you play,'' said Greg Olsen, the Panthers' outstanding tight end.

''Things are not going to always go your way. But the guys who have the ability to continue to fight, or not let it take them over mentally, are the ones who make it here.''

After this, the Panthers (7-0) don't face an opponent that currently has a winning record until Atlanta on Dec. 13.

Green Bay (6-1) heads into the meat of its NFC North schedule with four in a row, two with the lowly Lions.

So look at this as a valid test for both Carolina and Green Bay.

''It's a good thing that we have a quality opponent this week that's undefeated,'' Packers safety Micah Hyde said. ''We can go in there and have a big opportunity to make a splash win.''

The week's action began Thursday night with Cincinnati's 31-10 home victory over Cleveland.

Andy Dalton threw three touchdown passes to Tyler Eifert and played lead blocker on Mohamed Sanu's reverse to help the Bengals improve to 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. Coming off an emotional 16-10 victory in Pittsburgh that gave them control of the AFC North, the Bengals dominated the Browns (2-7) and Johnny Manziel in the second half.

Six teams are off this week: Arizona (6-2), Seattle (4-4), Kansas City (3-5), Houston (3-5), Baltimore (2-6) and Detroit (1-7).

Denver (7-0) at Indianapolis (3-5)

Peyton Manning has been gone from Naptown for 3 1-2 seasons, in which time the Colts have been a playoff regular along with the Broncos. Denver clearly is on a path toward another postseason berth, using a powerful defense more than Manning's arm. But he comes off his best performance of the season in the Broncos' romp past perhaps the NFC's best team, Green Bay.

If the Broncos win, Manning will break Brett Favre's record for regular-season wins by a quarterback (186). Manning also needs 284 yards passing to pass Favre (71,838) and become the NFL's career leader.

Manning dislikes remembrance tours.

''We've got a lot on our plate each week trying to kind of figure out what we're doing and trying to get everybody on the same page and that's plenty to focus on,'' Manning said. ''Between that and getting ready to play a team in a loud environment, it's kind of easy just to focus on that.''

Folks in Indy are focused on that losing record, even though the Colts are tied for the AFC South lead with Houston. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was fired this week and Andrew Luck has thrown a league-high 12 interceptions despite missing two games.

Washington (3-4) at New England (7-0)

No place is tougher for a visitor than Foxborough, and the Redskins are 1-10 on the road under coach Jay Gruden. They head into this game off a bye and a stirring comeback victory over the Bucs the previous week, but are banged-up on defense - no way to face Tom Brady.

Brady leads the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating at 143.5, with seven TDs, zero interceptions, and a 76.7 completion rate. Overall, Brady's 115.8 passer rating is best in the league, too; he has thrown for 20 TDs and one pick.

Philadelphia (3-4) at Dallas (2-5)

A rare intriguing night affair between teams with losing records. Why?

Well, the Cowboys believe if they could only find a way to win a game or two before quarterback Tony Romo returns, they could steal the NFC East. Of course, that assumes Dallas is spotless once Romo is back in the lineup - a huge if.

The Cowboys do come close most weeks, though, as their defense has performed well. So has Philadelphia's, relatively speaking, allowing less than 20 points a game. But the Eagles need an outbreak offensively from DeMarco Murray and where better to do it than at his former stomping grounds?

Oakland (4-3) at Pittsburgh (4-4)

Ah, Kenny Stabler vs. the Steel Curtain. Ted Hendricks doing a number on Terry Bradshaw. John Madden and Chuck Noll.

Oops. Wrong era.

Once the nastiest of NFL rivalries, Raiders-Steelers gets some of that spice back this week. For the first time since 2002, the Raiders are relevant, above .500 and with a big-play offense sparked by rookie receiver Amari Cooper. They manhandled the Jets' supposedly superior defense last week.

For Pittsburgh, this is huge after a home loss to the Bengals dropped the Steelers 3 1-2 games back in the AFC North. Look for Ben Roethlisberger, in his second game at QB following a knee injury, to do more passing with star RB Le'Veon Bell gone for the season.

If it comes down to defense, as these matchups often have, watch out for Jack Lambert and Jack Tatum.

Oops, wrong era again.

St. Louis (4-3) at Minnesota (5-2)

The winner here will be in good position for a wild card halfway through the schedule. Both teams are on the upswing, with the Vikings taking three in a row and the Rams three of four.

The Rams have visited Minnesota just twice in 23 seasons. Their coach, Jeff Fisher, is 1-6 against the Vikings. For St. Louis to prosper, it will need to keep firing up that league-leading pass rush, but also slow down Todd Gurley.

Gurley is the first rookie in NFL history with four straight games of 125-plus yards rushing. He leads the league with 115 yards per game rushing, and Minnesota star Adrian Peterson is next at 90.4.

Tennessee (1-6) at New Orleans (4-4)

Mike Mularkey steps into a difficult situation in the Big Easy. The Saints have turned it around as Drew Brees tears apart defenses with some new playmakers (Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead). Meanwhile, the Titans are in disarray with six straight defeats, and No. 2 overall draft pick Marcus Mariota missed the past two losses with a knee injury.

Brees is on one of those hot streaks that have marked his superb career. He tied the NFL record for single-game TD passes with seven last week and passed for 505 yards, 5 yards short of career high, in a 52-49 shootout with the Giants.

Miami (3-4) at Buffalo (3-4)

The other team that has changed coaches so far, the Dolphins found instant success with two wins after Dan Campbell replaced Joe Philbin. Then they went up to New England and got smoked.

No coaching changes are imminent in Western New York, though Rex Ryan has quieted down while trying to fix a sick offense and a disappointing defense. Buffalo comes off a bye after a damaging loss in London to the Jaguars, and should have starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor back.

But Ryan needs to get that defense revived, especially in light of professed communication issues between players and coaches.

''It's the execution of the calls, and I think that's the thing that we're trying to make sure that we're dialed in,'' Ryan says.

Atlanta (6-2) at San Francisco (2-6)

Desperation has hit the Niners' offense, with QB Blaine Gabbert taking over for Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers have no touchdowns in their past two games and three in five.

After a 5-0 start, the Falcons have struggled. Atlanta has six turnovers and 17 penalties over the past two games, and could be thin in the secondary. Safety William Moore (groin) could miss his second straight game and two more starters, cornerbacks Robert Alford (groin) and Desmond Trufant (lower back) also have missed practice time or have been limited by injuries.

Jacksonville (2-5) at New York Jets (4-3)

Jacksonville could do some more damage to AFC East wild-card contenders with a win at the Meadowlands, and like two weeks ago at Wembley, the Jags will face a team with uncertainty behind center. Both Ryan Fitzpatrick (left thumb) and Geno Smith (shoulder) were dinged in the Jets' worst showing of the season, a 34-20 loss at Oakland, although Fitz will start.

Look for New York's defense to be far stingier this week, and also keep an eye out for Jaguars WRs Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who have combined for 11 TD catches, most of any wideout duo this season. Hurns has a TD catch in five consecutive games, the longest streak in team history.

New York Giants (4-4) at Tampa Bay (3-4)

The prospect of the return of Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants' stud defensive end who blew off his finger in a fireworks accident July 4, makes this game stand out a bit. New York desperately needs to find a pass rush, which is JPP's specialty.

The Bucs are more than capable of making the Giants pay for poor defending as Jameis Winston improves on his reads and decisions. In Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, he has the targets to hurt a weakened defense.

Chicago (2-5) at San Diego (2-6), Monday night

Not exactly a prime-time must-see, especially with Bears star RB Matt Forte (knee) and Chargers standout WR Keenan Allen (spleen) injured.

Philip Rivers has had brilliant numbers this season even as the Bolts blunder. Rivers has set a franchise record with five straight 300-yard games. He has thrown for 18 TDs and has a 102.1 passer rating.

Could be plenty of transplanted Midwesterners at this one as San Diegans wonder where the Chargers will call home after this season.


AP NFL website: and