Wasn’t last week fun?
Well, it was for one team, and for the family and friends of Nick Mullens. Which is fun!
And while last week was enjoyable, this week brings more playoff intrigue. This is the stuff that matters as we move past the halfway point of the regular season.
The Carolina Panthers (6-2), winners of five of their last six, head to the Steel City to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2-1), who have also lost just once in their last six contests. They’ll meet under the bright lights of Heinz Field in a clash of two of the NFL’s stronger teams.
It’s getting cold in the Midwest. Bundle up and reach out for the warmth from these red-hot squads.
1. Which team is more complete?
This wasn’t true of the Steelers early in the season, but thanks to the play of James Conner, Pittsburgh now owns a balanced and dangerous offense and pairs it with a defense that owns a strength up front and does enough on the back end to limit opponents. They managed to score 23 on the Ravens before holding on for a one-score win over Baltimore last week, and buried Cleveland the week prior with a combination of a relentless pass rush and 146 yards from Conner.
Meanwhile, we find the Panthers, perhaps the NFL’s most overlooked team that is poised to make a fool of many. Carolina took a huge lead on Tampa Bay last week before holding on for a 14-point win, and stunned many the week before by dominating a Ravens team that was building a nice reputation for itself on the defensive side of the ball. The Panthers have done so in a myriad of ways, taking advantage of their offensive weapons all over the field, and it all starts with Cam Newton. The quarterback is playing some of his best football ever (including his most mistake-free play) while teamed with offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and all it’s doing right now is winning. Carolina is getting unexpected play from its secondary and its front seven is in the upper third of the league in terms of reliable production.
So where’s the edge between these two teams? Let’s bring in the elements. Pittsburgh has found its most success by running the ball well and allowing it to open up passing opportunities, and we all know it’s a little tougher to throw the ball when it gets cold. Carolina brings the league’s No. 8 rushing defense, though, allowing 94.1 yards per game on the ground.
Might the Steelers turn to the pass earlier than usual? And how will they counter Carolina’s offense? Well, rankings-wise, the Steelers own the advantage, bringing the No. 12 defense to face the No. 13 offense in Carolina. It sure seems to be setting up to be a stalemate.
We don’t have any recent history to go off of, either, since these two teams haven’t met since 2014, a 37-19 thrashing dished out by the Steelers in Charlotte. Confusion reigns!
2. Can James Conner make it five in a row?
We already talked about Conner’s importance to Pittsburgh’s offense above, but I’ll take it a step further with something I wrote about him on Sunday after Pittsburgh’s win over Baltimore. It is becoming very apparent that Conner isn’t just a leading contributor for the Steelers — he’s the lynchpin. I’m convinced that without his contributions, Pittsburgh would be mired in the same struggles it experienced early in the season. It’s no coincidence that in Conner’s last four games, all 100-plus-yard performances, the Steelers are 4-0. We aren’t setting a benchmark to produce a win, but we will say this: Conner is as vital to Pittsburgh’s chances as a heart is to a human.
That’s wild to say when talking about a team that also has Antonio Brown, right? Well, not quite. Brown will get his targets regardless, but Pittsburgh doesn’t hit full bloom without a running game, and a running back who can also catch passes out of the backfield. Conner has emerged as one capable of both, which is why the Steelers can then find success with their other targets. It’s much easier to play matchup ball when a team feels the need to keep an extra box defender in case of the run.
The question, then, is: Can Carolina break Conner’s streak? It’ll start with tackling. Conner has forced 52 missed tackles on 190 touches this season, is on pace for 2,170 scrimmage yards and has more than doubled his rushing yards per game and scrimmage touchdowns from his first four games to his last four. Wrapping him up on first contact will go a long way toward stopping that.
3. Tepper comes home
David Tepper purchased the Panthers in the offseason and waxed about his roots established in — you guessed it — Pittsburgh. Called “arguably the greatest hedge fund manager of his generation” by Forbes, Tepper returns to a city he once called home, and to a team of which he was once a minority owner. Instead of black and gold, though, he’ll be wearing black and Panther blue, and (likely) sitting in a different luxury suite, cheering for the visiting team in a familiar stadium.
Can his Panthers end a losing streak to the Steelers that dates back to Dec. 26, 1999? And more importantly (to this season, at least): Can the Panthers prove they’re for real with a win over an AFC contender?
It’s no secret that many aren’t taking the Panthers seriously. It took me a month to wake up and smell the coffee. But a win over the streaking Steelers on TNF would go a long way toward earning them some due respect.
A win like that would be a big moment in the infant stages of a new owner’s tenure. Perhaps he’ll hit up Primanti Bros in celebration if the Panthers bring home the W.
4. Will the Panthers get off the Steelers schneid?
That aforementioned streak dates back to the second time these two teams met in their history. The last time Carolina beat Pittsburgh, a 24-year-old Kerry Collins posted a 73.2 passer rating and completed 21 of 39 passes for 166 yards. Willie Green and Wesley Walls were the Panthers‘ two leading receivers. Rocket Ismail had one catch for six yards. Chad Cota was one of two Panthers to intercept Kordell Stewart.
The point is, that was a long time ago. What better way to welcome Tepper into the NFL than by getting a win over the Steelers? And what better way for the Steelers to announce to the league that yes, Le’Veon Bell or not, they are a force to be feared, than by taking down one of the NFC’s best teams?
Did you just set your DVR? You don’t have cable? You have Amazon Prime? Good, watch it there. Just make sure you’re in front of your device, whatever it may be. This one will be worth your time.