Since it's Halloween, we might as well revisit the Indianapolis Colts' nightmare season of 2011. Just like last week, when we mentioned that the last time the Colts had played the New Orleans Saints was during that 2011 season, the last time the Colts played the Carolina Panthers was during that dismal season that many Colts fans have tried to forget.
The Colts entered that week 12 game against the Panthers 0-11 on the season, while the Panthers entered the contest 2-8. It was Cam Newton's rookie season and the first year under head coach Ron Rivera, but starting with the win over the Colts, the Panthers would finish the season 4-2 for a 6-10 record overall. The Colts and Panthers were tied at 10 at halftime, but Carolina pulled away in the second half for a 27-19 victory. It was actually one of the most entertaining games of the year for the Colts (that's not saying a lot), as they got to the three yard line with under a minute left to play trailing by eight, but Curtis Painter was intercepted in the end zone to seal the loss.
Since that game, however, a lot has changed. For the Panthers, they have made two straight playoff berths in each of the last two seasons (2013 and 2014) after just four playoff appearances in 16 years prior to the Cam Newton era. For the Colts, they have a new general manager, a new head coach, a new franchise quarterback, and a mostly new team overall.
In fact, this game features two former first overall picks starting at quarterback. The Panthers selected Cam Newton with the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and then one year later the Colts selected Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Both players have impressed since entering the league and are crucial parts of their offense and their team overall. This game also features a matchup of two first place teams, as the Panthers lead the NFC South (at 6-0) and the Colts lead the AFC South (despite a 3-4 record). It's one of two games this weekend between first place teams, joining the matchup of the Packers and Broncos on Sunday night.
The Colts desperately need a victory on Monday night against the Panthers, as they are currently 3-4 and their head coach, Chuck Pagano, is in danger of losing his job mid-season. If the Colts lose their next two and are 3-6 entering the bye week, owner Jim Irsay could be inclined to make a change. The Colts will be fighting to try to turn their season around and save the job of their head coach, but it won't be easy against the undefeated Panthers. "These guys will respond," Pagano said Friday. "They always have." Never before in the Chuck Pagano era have the Colts lost three straight games, and they'll be trying to keep it that way this week.
Here are some of the key matchups to watch on Monday night that will be central to the Colts' efforts to stop their losing streak and knock off the unbeaten Panthers.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Panthers Defense
Don't panic, stay disciplined, stay smart, and stay balanced. If the Colts can do that offensively, I think they could keep the team in the game, but it's a lot easier said than done. Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton talked a lot this week about keeping the offensive balance and not getting away from Frank Gore and the run game as quickly, and that will be crucial to do on Monday night. As our own Matt Grecco pointed out, the Colts couldn't get it going against one of the worst pass defenses last week against the Saints at home, so why should we expect them to get it going against one of the best pass defenses this week against the Panthers on the road? Maintaining that offensive balance will be crucial on Monday night. Furthermore, the team needs to play smart. Namely, Andrew Luck. He has struggled quite a bit, and one of the many aspects of this has been locking on to his first read. A lot of the time, his first read is T.Y. Hilton (which is fine), but the problem comes when Luck doesn't move on from that first read well. One of the best corners in the league, Josh Norman, is expected to be on Hilton on Monday night, so Luck needs to be able to move on from his first read and not force stupid passes to Hilton, as Norman is a guy who can make opposing quarterbacks pay by intercepting the football. The biggest thing that the Colts offense needs to do on Monday night is simple: play smart. Don't get scared away from the run game too quickly. Things like that could make a significant difference and could keep them in the game against a good defense.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Panthers Offense
The Panthers' offense is all about Cam Newton. So, of course, the key to the game for the Colts will be stopping Cam Newton. Makes sense, right? That's much easier said than done, however, as Newton is a dangerous player who can beat you both with his arm and with his legs. The Colts haven't done particularly well against dual-threat quarterbacks in recent years, so Newton provides reason for concern for Colts fans. They will need to stay disciplined and key in on taking away Newton's running lanes, perhaps leaving a quarterback spy on him. Another way to slow down Newton, however, is to get pressure on him. The Panthers' wide receivers are an underwhelming group that the Colts corners should be able to handle, but not if Newton has a ton of time to allow receivers to get open and make plays. In fact, the numbers for Newton when under pressure are striking: according to Pro Football Focus, Newton is just 23 of 53 (43.4%) when throwing under pressure this year with no touchdowns and five interceptions. That's not good, but the Colts also struggle to rush the passer, which could neutralize that potential advantage. The bottom line, however, is this: you can't let Cam Newton get comfortable. You need to get pressure on him and you need to try to take away his running lanes. If the Colts' defense can make it so that Newton can't get comfortable on Monday night, they should be able to have some success against this offense.
Why the Colts Will Win
The Colts are a better team than they have shown in recent weeks, and if Andrew Luck can get it going, they can compete with any team in the league. The Colts actually led the Patriots at halftime after a very good half of football, but things fell apart in the second half. They need to put it together for a whole game (something they haven't done yet), but they have that potential. Furthermore, they are desperate for a win. They've lost two in a row and are 3-4 overall, and their head coach is in danger of getting fired. The players love Pagano, so this week would be as good of a time as ever to show that on the field and fight for their coach. Indy hasn't lost three straight games at any point during the Chuck Pagano era, so they have been good at rebounding and they have a lot to play for on Monday.
Why the Colts Won't Win
On paper, this one shouldn't be close. The Panthers are undefeated, have a very good defense, and have an MVP candidate (albeit one down a little ways on the list) in Cam Newton. The Colts, on the other hand, haven't beat a non-division opponent all year, have the worst-ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yardage, and their preseason MVP candidate, Andrew Luck, has been struggling. To top it all off, the Panthers are at home, meaning that if the Colts hope to get a win they will need to pull it off on the road against an undefeated team despite recent struggles. That's a tall order, and if things go according to how they look on paper, it won't happen.
The Colts could get things going this week. They could have their best performance of the season and they could see Andrew Luck get hot. All of that is possible, but we've yet to see them put things together for more than a half, and the same is true of Luck. Unless Luck and this team looks a lot better, they won't knock off the undefeated Panthers on the road on Monday Night Football, and until Luck and this team looks better, I can't pick them to upset the Panthers.