Updated: Nov 3
The Carolina Panthers are finally in the win column again after a home win against the division rival New Orleans Saints this past Sunday, snapping a 9 game losing streak. They now hope to build off of this win versus the visiting Arizona Cardinals this Sunday. The Cardinals have shown in the first few weeks of the season that they certainly have their flaws, making this game an opportunity to build off of last week's win and keep Matt Rhule employed for one more week.
This game feels like a must win if the Panthers want to make a push for the playoffs. Their schedule is not the easiest in the world so it is crucial for them to get the win against a very beatable Cardinals team. Here are some factors that could be the difference maker in this matchup.
Can the offensive passing game find its footing?
The Panther's passing attack has been putrid for the first 3 games of the season. Baker Mayfield has not been comfortable in the pocket, consistently missing open receivers. Ben McAdoo's offense has been successful in making every passing play look significantly more difficult than it needs to. This type of offense is not sustainable and will need to improve if the team wants to be in contention for a playoff berth.
The good news for this offense is that all of the talent is in place for them to have a stellar passing game. Baker Mayfield has shown in the past that he can be a quality starting quarterback. He led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff win just a couple of years ago. The Panthers' offensive line has also been very solid so far this season (that feels strange to say). The receiving core is one of the deepest this team has had in a while. It also helps to have quite possibly the greatest receiving back of all time in the backfield. This team has all the pieces to have a functional passing game, they just have not found a way to put it all together yet.
They now have a great opportunity to establish a rhythm in the passing game this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals have allowed 29 points per game this season, which is second worst in the league. Their defense has very little talent outside of defensive lineman J.J. Watt (who is currently listed as questionable on the injury report) and standout safety Budda Baker. The Cardinals have quite possibly the worst defense in football, making this matchup a perfect opportunity for the Panthers to find their footing passing the ball.
Are we about to see a dominant offensive line performance?
The offensive line has been a stellar group so far this season. They were able to neutralize a quality Saints defensive line last week. They will have a perfect opportunity to build off that strong performance now against Arizona.
The Cardinals' defensive line is very suspect. They are going to be without nose tackle Rashard Lawrence, who is dealing with a hand injury. The aforementioned J.J. Watt is also questionable with a calf injury. Besides those two players, the Cardinals have two veteran players in edge defender Markus Golden and tackle Zach Allen, but neither player is anything more than decent. The defensive line depth seriously drops off after that, making them one of the thinnest groups in the league.
This suspect defensive line will give the Panthers the opportunity to dominate in the trenches. The Panthers relied heavily on Christian McCaffrey last week versus the Saints, who ended the day with 25 rushing attempts for 108 yards. The team should be able to have a productive day on the ground again on Sunday with the Cardinals' defensive line woes. McCaffrey is currently questionable, but all signs are pointing to him being able to play on Sunday. Expect another productive game for Panthers running backs.
Can the defense contain Kyler Murray?
The Cardinals' offense is also a very depleted group. They are without two of their top wide receivers; Deandre Hopkins is currently suspended and A.J. Green is going to miss the game with a knee injury. Two of their other receivers, Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore, are also questionable to play on Sunday.
These injuries will mean that there will be more pressure on quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray is arguably the only reason why the Cardinals have been competitive this season. He is undoubtedly the best running quarterback in the league outside of Lamar Jackson. He consistently frustrates defenses with his ability to use his legs to extend plays and make something out of nothing. It is going to be crucial for the Panthers to keep contain on Murray. Letting him out of the pocket is the last thing the Panthers want. The team's defensive lineman and linebackers will certainly have their hands full in limiting Kyler Murray's playmaking ability.
Which head coach has the more abysmal performance?
Matt Rhule and Cardinals' head coach Kliff Kingsbury are arguably the two worst head coaches in the NFL right now. It is interesting how similar the two coaches' careers have been so far. Both coaches were head coaches in college who went straight to an NFL head coaching job afterwards. Both Rhule and Kingsbury also have traditions of starting off their seasons hot before completely collapsing in the second half. Rhule's Panthers started 3-2 and 3-0 in his first two years as head coach before finishing 5-11 and 5-12 respectively. Kingsbury's Cardinals started 6-3 and 7-0 in the previous two seasons but ended up finishing 8-8 and 11-6 respectively.
These two coaches have undoubtedly held their teams back in their tenures. Now, they face off to see who is the less bad of the two. It is truly the ultimate mid off.
Who is going to return kicks?
With Andre Roberts on injury reserve, the Panthers have been rotating players at kick returner. Last Sunday, Shi Smith and newcomer Laviska Shenault alternated returning kicks. Smith has shown flashes at returner, being the primary one during the preseason. Shenault is known for his playmaking ability in open space, which was on full display on his 67 yard touchdown against the Saints.
Both players have shown have shown to be quality options. It will be interesting to see if one of them can beat the other one out and earn the role of starting kick returner. The coaching staff may also elect to keep splitting the reps between the two players, instead of having one featured returner. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the two players do filling in for Andre Roberts.
The Panthers have had the Cardinal's number recently, beating them the last 6 times the two teams faced off. This should end up being the case again, as the Panthers have a much more talented and balanced team. The Cardinals can never be counted out though. Kyler Murray is the type of quarterback that will elevate their team to the point where they will always be competitive, despite the dysfunction around them.
A win is much needed for the Panthers if they want to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017. This game could give the team much needed momentum heading into a tough stretch in the schedule. The Panthers are going to be facing the 49ers, Rams and Bucs after the Cardinals game. With a gauntlet of a schedule coming up, the Carolina Panthers will need to be getting victories against every winnable team they face. A loss here would certainly be detrimental to their season.