The Carolina Panthers, who are allegedly rebuilding under first time NFL head coach Matt Rhule and yet tied for first place with New Orleans and Tampa at 3-2 in the NFC South, are the biggest surprise of this strange NFL season to date.
Of course everybody beats Atlanta, and wins over the Chargers and Cardinals don’t exactly qualify as statement games, but that the three wins have come in a row the last few weeks immediately after All Pro running back Christian McCaffrey went out with a bum wheel should certainly give the Bears pause.
Sleep on these guys and you’ll get your butts whipped.
That said, the Bears are certainly the more talented team, and a number of the matchups here do favor them if they play to the level they did in the second half 10 days earlier against the Bucs, which they haven’t near enough so far this season.
The outcome of this one will most likely turn on whether the Bears can put together 60 minutes or not.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Teddy Bridgewater and Joe Brady vs. Chuck Pagano
It was just 363 days ago that Teddy Bridgewater marched the Saints into Chicago and trashed Chuck Pagano’s Bears defense, putting up 36 points, throwing for 281 yards and two touchdowns, converted 7-of-15 third-down attempts and marshaled a rushing attack that went 35 attempts for 151 yards with Alvin Kamara on the sidelines.
Panthers 31-year old offensive coordinator Joe Brady was at LSU but that was after he spent 2017-2018 learning his craft from Sean Payton with the Saints.
Bridgewater won’t have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, Michael Thomas, Latavius Murray or Taysom Hill with him Sunday in Carolina, but Pagano and his charges best have better answers for what he and Brady will try and throw at them than they did a year ago.
COACHING DECISION TO WATCH
Will Matt Nagy find a way to feature multiple receivers other than Allen Robinson?
The true measure of Robinson’s talent and value is everybody in the league knows he’s the focus of the Bears offense, stacks whatever they can to take him away, and yet he is still currently sixth in the league in receptions and eighth in receiving yards while the Bears are just 23rd in the league throwing the football and 27th in average gain.
If the offense is going to progress Nagy has to find a way to get the ball to Anthony Miller, Darnell Mooney, Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet.
PLAYER (S) TO WATCH
Panthers RB Mike Davis and WR Robby Anderson
Davis was a serious bust in Chicago just last season but he’s now stepped in for McCaffrey and put up 46 rushes for 220 yards and a TD along with 30 receptions for 206 yards and 2 TDs for the most part in 3 ½ games. How is he able to do in Carolina what he couldn’t get near in Chicago?
Anderson, a free agent acquistion, was hidden with the Jets but has emerged as a legit No. 1 ½-to-2 receiver with 36 catches for 489 yards in just five games.
Expect the Panthers to try and keep Anderson away from Kyle Fuller and challenge rookie Jaylon Johnson with him. He is more cagey and precise than fast.
As he was tutored in New Orleans and is being coached by Brady, Bridgewater gets the ball out fast and his O-line has done enough to keep him from being sacked more than eight times in their first five games.
If Quinn and Khalil Mack get going together it could be a very long afternoon for the Panthers.
WILD-CARD PLAYER(S) WHO COULD SURPRISE
Anthony Miller and Cole Kmet
It’s not just up to Nagy to make them available; these two have to show up when he does. We know the ability is there, but they’ve been near invisible the last few weeks. It’s hard to escape the conclusion Nagy knows that can’t continue.
Panthers are 14th in total defense, 13th in points allowed and fifth against the pass, but Carolina is just 25th stopping the run and 31st in average gain per rush allowed, while the Bears are just 27th running the football and 16th in average gain per run.
This should be a day for the Bears ground game.
THE FINAL WORD
Bears 30, Panthers 16
We’re at that point in the season where we have to start accepting teams are what their records suggest, but final evaluations are still a couple weeks away. I don’t believe the Panthers are legit playoff contenders, and I don’t believe the Bears are as mediocre as they’ve played to date. The matchups here really favor the Bears run game and pass rush, and if it proves true that’s a really solid combo.