3 Week 13 Storylines to Watch: The Panthers' Quest for Greatness
That's really the only word I can muster about the Thursday night game we just witnessed between the Packers and the Lions. From the Packers going down 17-0 headed into halftime, to a Randall Cobb fumble recovery touchdown, to the infamous Aaron Rodgers to Richard Rodgers Hail Mary, that was a hell of a game.
But one thing you ought not do is come away thinking that the Packers are cured of their woes, as wildly unlikely circumstances led to their victory, including a controversial facemask call to give Rodgers one more shot to chuck it down the field.
What's also very unlikely is the fact that, about six weeks ago, we had five undefeated teams, of which the Packers were one. And of those five teams (Bengals, Broncos, Packers, Panthers, and Patriots), the Panthers were widely assumed to be the weakest unit and most likely to have their streak snapped.
But as of today, the Packers, per our power rankings (not including last night's performance) rank as the eighth best offense in football whereas the Kelvin Benjamin-less Panthers rank seventh in total offense.
Moreover, the Panthers sport the best overall defense in the league. Let's just say that, as a man born and raised in North Carolina, it's quite a time to be alive, even if smart people are dubbing the Panthers the worst 11-0 team in NFL history.
But while the Panthers actually have a fairly soft schedule ahead to close out their remaining five games, four of those games are divisional tilts, and you better believe they've got a bullseye on their backs. One of those matchups, against the New Orleans Saints, is set to go down this weekend in the Superdome.
Can the Panthers emerge from New Orleans with their perfect record unscathed, or do Drew Brees and his Saints have a few tricks up their sleeves?
Let's take a look at the Panthers/Saints game and a couple of other storylines you should be following heading into the Week 13 weekend.
Can the Panthers Remain Undefeated?
The Carolina Panthers are admittedly an unlikely team to be the only remaining undefeated squad in all of football. Cam Newton, while definitely putting up career year, still isn't a top 10 passer per our signature on-field performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps bring the numbers closer to the field by using historical data, and down-and-distance data, to set a level of performance expectation for each play.
So if a quarterback passes for, say, eight yards on a 3rd-and-10, he'd more than likely accrue negative NEP for that play because the play likely results in a punt. Conversely if he converted the first down by throwing for 14 yards, he'd get positive NEP. The aggregate of positive and negative NEP accumulated through individual plays measures a player's overall on-field impact. You can learn more about NEP by checking out our glossary.
From 2011 to 2014, Newton has finished 11th, 12th, 15th and 23rd in Passing NEP among quarterbacks with at least 300 passes. Factoring in his rushing production, Newton has finished 6th, 8th, 8th, and 16th in those same seasons, respectively. This season, he ranks 11th in Passing NEP and 7th in Total NEP (factoring in rushing production), and he's producing at a level above expectation slightly above that of his rookie season, which I might add, was very good.
Of course, he doesn't have the same weapons now that he did then.
But the difference in the Panthers this year is that their defense has been clicking all season, in tandem with their offense. They currently rank second in league in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP (big ups to Josh Norman), and 11th in the league in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP to form the league's top overall defense.
The Saints, on the other hand, primarily because of their defense, look bad. Their defense got to such a so-in-shambles point that they let go of wild-haired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan a few weeks back. They currently sport the worst pass defense in the league per our numbers, and the 25th-best rushing defense, so the Panthers shouldn't have any problems putting points on the board, regardless of it being a road game.
The Saints still sport a pretty good offense, ranked sixth in the league per our numbers. The key to getting a win (if they can) is probably to get Mark Ingram going, as the Panthers are more vulnerable to the run than the pass. And if Josh Norman stays on Brandin Cooks for the majority of the day, they'll need one of their secondary receivers like Willie Snead, Marques Colston, or Benjamin Watson to step up in the receiving game.
The Panthers will continue their quest for greatness on Sunday, and our projections currently give them a 70.73% chance at walking away with a victory. We'll see if Drew Brees and company can put up the kind of fight to challenge their division rival's pursuit of history.
A Dual Home Game
This week, we get to see the only two teams who share an NFL stadium square off against in other in a dual home game -- those teams of course being the Jets and the Giants. This game, beyond the natural bragging rights that accompany crosstown rivalries, carries with it major playoff implications as both the Jets and the Giants rest square in contention for playoff births in their respective conferences.
The Jets, got their early season groove back last week, thumping their division rival Dolphins for 38 points. They currently have the seventh seed in the AFC with their 6-5 record, just outside of the playoff threshold. They'll get to tee it up against the Giants, who just lost to their division rivals in the Redskins and slipped to 5-6, while losing the loose grip they had on their division lead and slipping to ninth place in the NFC standings. The Jets and the Giants have, respectively, according to our numbers, a 43% and 39% chance of making the playoffs. So, needless to say, this game carries major implications for postseason viability.
Stay tuned for football's version of the Subway Series. It shouldn't disappoint.
The Miami Coaching Apocalypse
The coaching apocalypse in Miami continued this past week with offensive coordinator Bill Lazor catching the axe for putting together an offense that currently ranks 21st in the league per our numbers. Part of the Dolphins' struggles is their inability to get the running game going.
But perhaps "inability" is the wrong word to use here, as they have only given Lamar Miller and Jay Ajayi 30 combined touches in the last two games. That's inexplicable. While game flow can certainly explain a portion of the Dolphins sporting the leagues' highest pass-to-run ratio (2.08-to-1), it can't explain it all. In fact, looking at the numbers per Pro Football Reference's Game Play Finder, it's clear that the Dolphins have abandoned the running game far earlier than they've needed to, throwing on 62% of their first, second, or third-down plays in the first or second quarters when they're trailing by 10 points or less. Only the Patriots (who haven't been in that situation much) and the Ravens (who have) have thrown at a higher clip.
That's crazy when you have Lamar Miller, whose 0.05 Rushing NEP per rush ranks sixth among the 35 running backs with at least 100 carries, and whose 43.7% rushing Success Rate ranks eighth in that same cohort. The Dolphins' new offensive coordinator, Zac Taylor, has stated that he wants to establish the running game for the Dolphins beginning this weekend. We'll find out this weekend whether Miami is actually committed to the running game in a tough test against the Ravens' eight-ranked rush defense. I'm sure Miller and Ajayi's fantasy owners would rejoice at that coming to fruition, both as a win for their fantasy squads and common sense simultaneously.