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Monday Night Football Preview: A Chance to Make a Statement

Both the Colts and the Panthers have something to prove Monday night. Which team do our projections see coming out on top?

Entering Week 8's contest between the Carolina Panthers and the Indianapolis Colts, one quarterback has been discussed as a contender for the MVP, and the other has dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness throughout the year. It wouldn't have been a huge shock if I had told you that before the season. We'll just leave out which signal caller fits which preseason narrative.

Just like the rest of the NFL this season, these two teams have been way too predictable.

If you knew heading into the year that the Panthers would be 6-0 and the Colts would be 3-4, you don't need to be reading this article, my friend. You've got it all figured out, and I hope you are living handsomely.

Because of these strange starts to the season, the Panthers enter Monday night favored by 6.5 over the visiting Colts. But how should we expect things to really shake down?

To answer that, we can consult numberFire's game projections page. This has a look at the win odds for each team, a projected final score, projections of stats, and a look at similar games from history that can give us a better idea of what to expect in the game. This page is available for all games during the NFL season for premium subscribers, and it'll make your heart flutter, home slice.

Additionally, we'll be using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). In case you're new to the site, here's how NEP works. On each play, there is an expected number of points the team will score on their current drive. A positive play (such as a three-yard run on 3rd and 2) will increase that. A negative play (such as a three-yard run on 3rd and 4) will decrease that. NEP is the sum of each fluctuation in those expected points throughout the year for both teams and players, with the team totals adjusted based on the strength of the opponent.

Heading into this contest, there are a bunch of questions that will help decide the outcome. Let's sort through four of them to see if we can't figure out at least one game in what has been a tremendously weird season.

Is Andrew Luck Improving from his Early-Season Struggles?

Andrew Luck is going to want to forget 2015. After starting the year off in brutal fashion, he missed two games with a shoulder injury. Now, he comes back, and we find out he also has broken ribs. Can a brotha get a mulligan?

Luck is now two games back from the shoulder injury, facing two teams that rank 12th and 26th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. How has he fared? Frankly, pretty much the same.

Over his first 121 drop backs this year (which included the game in which he played through the shoulder injury), Luck had 9.76 Passing NEP. That equates to 0.08 Passing NEP per drop back. He entered Week 6 -- the game he returned -- ranked 20th in Passing NEP per drop back of the 36 quarterbacks with at least 50 drop backs. Things haven't gotten much better since.

Over the past two games, Luck has added a whopping 2.85 Passing NEP, equating to 0.03 Passing NEP per drop back. Not only has he not gotten better, but his numbers have actually gotten worse since he returned from the shoulder injury. It's possible the ribs are still bothering him, but it's clear that Luck just isn't playing good football right now.

Unfortunately for him, relief is not on the horizon. The Panthers rank second in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, much better than the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints defenses Luck has faced the past two games.

As a result, our projections don't exactly have Luck swimming in efficiency Monday night. He's projected to throw for 259 yards on 40 attempts (6.5 yards per attempt) with 2.22 touchdowns and 0.96 interceptions. The 0.96 interceptions would certainly be a relief as Luck has chucked multiple picks in four of five games this year and six of his last seven if you count the playoffs. Luck will one to monitor both in this game and moving forward.

Has Cam Newton Moved to the Top Tier of Quarterbacks?

I would do unspeakable things to get Cam Newton on a team with a good offensive line and some competent wide receivers. That would be crazy fun. Even without that, Newton has been putting forth a solid campaign.

In doing so, Newton has started to generate some buzz as being the league's Most Valuable Player. numberFire's JJ Zachariason already tackled that issue and concluded that Newton is not among the league's best right now. If you haven't read that piece yet, I'd recommend doing so as JJ lays out a great argument.

As such, I want to change things up. If Newton isn't among the league's best, where does he fit among quarterbacks this year? He's not as high as you might expect.

Through the first seven weeks of the season, Newton had accounted for 29.96 Total NEP, which takes both his rushing and passing skills into account. That total ranked 16th in the league out of 34 quarterbacks with at least 90 drop backs on the year. He was below quarterbacks such as Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Jay Cutler. That's not to say that they are better than he is, but it is probably enough to rule Newton out as being a top-tier signal caller.

If we change things up to just look at the passing, Newton slips a bit more in the rankings. He falls to 18th in Passing NEP per drop back among the same group as above, one spot below Josh McCown. It's impossible to know where Newton would rank if he had more talent around him, but would he be a top-five passer? I think that would be a stretch.

It's not as if these metrics have always viewed Newton in a less-than-shimmering light. In fact, he finished in the top 10 in Total NEP each of his first three years in the league, ranking sixth, eighth, and ninth respectively from 2011 to 2013. Even last year -- his most difficult season yet -- Newton finished 16th in Total NEP, equal to his ranking this year. So while Newton is producing, that doesn't automatically make him a top-tier quarterback.

That said, Newton and his supporters could get a little extra fuel for their argument Monday. The Colts rank 25th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. As such, our projections see Newton having a decent night with 228 passing yards on 31 attempts (7.35 yards per attempt) with 1.45 touchdowns and 0.78 interceptions. On the ground, he's slated for 47 rushing yards and 0.44 touchdowns. It's a great matchup, and it's a great time for Newton to make his advanced metrics catch up to his perception with the public.

How Far Can the Panthers' Defense Carry Them?

Obviously, if Cam isn't killing it on the field, the team must be 6-0 through other means. You need not look further than the defense.

As mentioned in the section on Luck, the Panthers are second in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. If we broaden things out, they are seventh in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. That's not too shabby.

The one minor weak spot the Panthers have had is against the rush. They currently sit 29th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. Certainly, part of that is because Luke Kuechly missed three and a half games at the beginning of the season, but even that doesn't explain it. They have allowed 115 and 177 yards on the ground in the two games since Kuechly returned.

Despite these mild inefficiencies, the Panthers still sit fifth in numberFire's power rankings. It's only Week 8, but they already have 99.2 percent odds of making the playoffs and 65.6 percent odds of winning the NFC South. Their Super Bowl odds are up to 13.0 percent. A lot of that is due to their owning of such high playoff odds, but that number jumps out at you.

Within the aforementioned game projection is a list of similar teams throughout history to the ones in the contest. The third most similar team to these Panthers (at 92.68 percent) is the 2008 version of the Panthers. They finished the regular season with a stout 12-4 record. They got a first round bye before eventually falling to the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional round. If the 2015 Panthers keep playing defense like they have and get any improvement on offense, they could be in for a run deeper than that 2008 squad.

Can the Colts Get Back on Track?

Remember those power rankings mentioned in the last section? Yeah. The Colts are currently 24th. Not great, Bob!

However, because the AFC South is even worse, Bob, they still hold 49.3 percent playoff odds. If they can turn this puppy around, they can make the playoffs at 6-10. But, it would be in their best interests to get that train rolling as soon as possible.

Clearly, things are a bit stacked against them with the Panthers favored by 6.5. However, if we look at the most similar games in the game projections, we can see at least a few examples of hope for the Colts.

One of the games on the list comes from 2012 between the Cincinnati Bengals (representing the Panthers) and the Dallas Cowboys (repping the Colts). The Bengals entered the game as 3.5-point favorites, but the Cowboys went in and snatched a 20-19 victory. What can we glean from this one?

This game was just straight ugly. Neither team topped 336 total yards, and there were only 3 offensive touchdowns. Each team only turned the ball over once, but outside of that, it probably wasn't the most aesthetically-pleasing affair.

There were two things that separated the Cowboys from the Bengals that day. First, even though the Cowboys had fewer scoring drives (four), they converted more of those into touchdowns (two) than the Bengals did. Against a defense like the Panthers', the Colts aren't guaranteed a plethora of trips to the red zone. When they do get one, it appears paramount that they punch it in.

Second -- and this likely helped lead to the first point -- the Cowboys were efficient on third down. They converted 11 of their 19 attempts compared to the Bengals going 4 for 11. The Colts have been okay here, sitting 12th in third-down conversion rate on the year. The Panthers' defense ranks 14th in third-down conversion rate allowed, so it's not out of the question that this could slant in the Colts' favor Monday.

In essence, the Colts need to get the most of their opportunities. If they can't score touchdowns when they get to the red zone, winning will be difficult. If they can't keep the driving going once it hits third down, the same is true. Because the sample sizes for both aren't huge, variance can always swing in their favor and help the Colts pick up a win. They need things to break right, but a win is far from out of the question.

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