GREEN BAY – The Carolina Panthers are at the midseason point in the best season in franchise history. Never before, have the Panthers been 7-0.
Sunday, the Panthers will host the 6-1 Packers in a game that would decide the head-to-head tiebreaker, should it be needed to determine homefield advantage for the playoffs. There’s even more at stake for the Panthers.
Can they go undefeated?
The schedule is favorable. This could be the Panthers’ toughest test the remainder of the regular season.
“There’s no question we’ll be heading into a hostile environment,” Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said of Sunday’s game at Bank of America Stadium. Capers, of course, was the Panthers’ head coach for the franchise’s first four seasons.
“It’s a well-rounded team so there’s going to be a lot of excitement. Their record speaks for itself. It’s an NFC game. We have to block out all of the peripheral stuff,” Capers said.
The Packers are coming off a discomforting loss in Denver. In contrast, the Panthers scored an overtime win over the Colts on Monday night that has the Panthers and the team’s fans on a high.
“Cam (Newton) has grown. (Jonathan) Stewart breaks a lot of tackles. There’s a reason they’re the No. 1 rush offense in the league,” Capers said.
The Packers began the season with strong performances against the run, but have since fallen to No. 25 in the league. The focus for this game will be on Capers’ run defense; it must improve over its performance in Denver.
“Any time you have a quarterback willing to run, that’s an extra man you have to defend,” Capers said, referring to Newton, who has rushed for 286 yards and four touchdowns. The threat he poses as a runner helps dull the focus on Stewart, 505 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Defensively, the Panthers are No. 7 against the pass and tied for seventh in the league with 20 sacks.
“Unlike the last couple of teams we’ve faced, they’re a four-down linemen team. They’re active at linebacker and solid in the secondary. (Cornerback Josh Norman) is playing very well. They fly to the ball and they’re physical,” Packers play-caller Tom Clements said.
At the heart of the Packers’ effort on offense this week will be improvement on third down. The Packers have fallen to No. 19 in third-down conversions. The decline is responsible for play counts that dipped to 49 and 46 respectively in the past two games.
“They’ve done a good job of turning the ball over and sacking the quarterback. We have to protect the football and convert third down to sustain drives,” Clements said.
The reason for the poor third-down conversion rate?
“We’re just not taking advantage of our opportunities. We’re a little better on third and 6-10 than on third and 1-5,” Clements said.
The Packers have a statistical edge on special teams, but Panthers return man Ted Ginn’s speed is Ron Zook’s main concern
“The big thing about him is he’s got a jet; he’s fast,” the Packers special teams coordinator said. “He still looks like he can run like he did in college. You have to be able to cage him and get him down.”
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