Two of the NFL's most disappointing teams go head to head on Monday Night Football as the Carolina Panthers head to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles.
The Panthers (2-8) were supposed to take a step forward in Cam Newton's sophomore season. With a full offseason (no lockout) to prepare, Newton should have been better this season. But with the lack of protection in front of him and elite talent to throw to (save Steve Smith), Newton's skills have stagnated, if not regressed.
The defense added Luke Kuechly, who has added tackle after tackle and helped keep some short gains from turning into longer ones, but the defense is still far behind Ron Rivera's expectations.
The Eagles (3-7) looked like they were better this season, starting the season 3-1, but ubiquitous turnovers and an injury to Michael Vick have deep-sixed any hopes they've had. Well, it's not exactly like Vick was playing great before he was injured, but rookie Nick Foles has no chance behind that offensive line.
Like the Panthers, the Eagles defense has underachieved in 2012 and cost Juan Castillo his job. Acting defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (once a head coaching candidate around the league) hasn't been much better, though, and the Eagles have given up over 30 points the last two weeks.
So who wins in Week 13?
Key Storyline No. 1: Where's the Defense?
No, seriously, where is it?
Rivera is supposed to be a defensive mastermind. So is Todd Bowles. Both of these teams have invested a tremendous amount of money and draft picks on that side of the ball.
Nnamdi Asomugha has been terrible in the Eagles scheme. Charles Johnson hasn't been able to deliver after receiving his big paycheck in Carolina. Mychal Kendricks, Luke Kuechly, Nate Allen and Josh Norman have all shone at times since being drafted, but the overall defenses are still suffering.
These two teams have to make sure they have the right coordinators, position coaches and schemes to bring them to the next level. In this game, however, there might be no hope.
Key Storyline No. 2: Is This the Beginning of the End for Both Coaches?
Of course, it may not be up to Rivera and Andy Reid to fix their respective defenses, or their offenses, or anything but updating their resumes.
Neither of these teams have gotten better over the last two years, and neither resemble anything that could be considered mentally tough, well-prepared or well-coached. Game days have been, for the most part, exercises in futility for both as fans and media have consistently (and correctly) second-guessed their decisions.
Reid has been on the hot seat a thousand times during his long tenure in Philadelphia; this is Rivera's first trip. A blowout on Monday Night Football could go a long way to urging one of these men out the door.
Keys for the Carolina Panthers
Just run the ball!
One of the craziest things about this NFL season is how much the Panthers have invested into their offensive backfield and how little production they've gotten out of it.
This is should a team with multiple 1,000-yard rushers, and they probably won't even get one. Mike Tolbert was brought over to "replace" Jeremy Shockey's role in the offense, and he has been a complete non-factor.
Running the ball against the Eagles' 18th-ranked rushing defense is a pretty great way to change that narrative.
On defense, the need to make Nick Foles beat them on the outside. If he's allowed to throw shorter timing routes and the Eagles are allowed to run the ball with any consistency, they have far more talent on paper and should win. If Foles is asked to throw deep outside the hashes, the Panthers will come up with the ball repeatedly.
Keys for the Philadelphia Eagles
The blueprint to beat Cam Newton is practically open-source at this point. Load the box so the Panthers don't get rolling on the ground, push the pocket back and make sure you have multiple people (athletically gifted people) charged with keeping him contained. Force Newton to beat you with his arm, and he won't (or at least, he hasn't).
On offense, things are going to be a little more difficult because the Eagles offense is extremely shorthanded with Vick, LeSean McCoy, Jason Avant, Riley Cooper and Danny Watkins all banged up. Cooper and Watkins will likely play, but the latter hasn't been very effective this year.
The Eagles need to try to bash the middle of the Panthers defense where they are most vulnerable. Put a blocker on Kuechly and run right up the gut until the Panthers prove they can stop you. If Monday night is like every other game over the past two years, they won't.
In the pass game, Foles needs to be picky on the short-to-intermediate levels of the field. If he hangs the ball up too long, the Panthers have some ball hawks who will come down with it.
The pocket is going to get smaller for Foles, and he needs to learn to step up into it and wait for his receivers to get open. They will be, eventually, and he can make the Panthers pay if they blitz him too frequently.
Bold Prediction: Cam Newton and Nick Foles Both Pass for 300-Plus Yards
While I'm not a huge fan of either team's pass game, my bold prediction is that the defenses will fall flat on their faces.
I'm not predicting a high score, however, because both QBs are also likely to turn the ball over a few times. It helps this prediction that both head coaches like to get away from the run game prematurely.
Player of the Game Prediction: Cam Newton
The Eagles have better team speed than they did in the past, but Newton is able to get teams moving side to side and can hit open receivers when the zones break down.
He hasn't done it frequently this season, but when push comes to shove, it's the Eagles defense that tends to get shoved around.
Final Score Prediction: Panthers 23, Eagles 16
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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