CHARLOTTE — The Panthers are ready to hit the road for their final road trip of the season. They'll spend New Year's Eve in sunny Florida, looking to play spoiler to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jacksonville, at 8-7, leads the AFC South, but is riding a four-game losing streak and in a race to the finish with the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans for the division title.
Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m. ET at Everbank Stadium. Fans can check out more information on how to watch here.
Here are five things to watch for during the game:
Questionable quarterback quandaries
Who will play quarterback for the Jaguars on Sunday? As of right now, it's set to be CJ Beathard, with veteran Matt Barkley moved to the active roster this week as well. Starter Trevor Lawrence did not practice all week, recovering from a right shoulder injury that knocked him out of last week's game, and has officially been ruled out for Sunday. In his place, the Jaguars turned to veteran backup CJ Beathard.
Beathard brings a 79.3 completion percentage into Sunday, albeit having thrown less than 30 passes thus far this season. Lawrence has never missed a game since being drafted first overall in 2021, even when dealing with various other injuries and concussion protocols.
While Lawrence has officially been ruled out for Sunday's game, that wasn't known until Friday afternoon, meaning the Panthers had to spend all week preparing for both quarterbacks. Despite Beathard's relative lack of playing time, not only this season, but across his six-year career, defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero isn't taking lightly what the backup could do to his team. Because at the end of the day, he'll have the same offense and weapons as Lawrence.
"It really doesn't matter (who it is)," Evero said Thursday. "They're a good offense. The backup has played really well this year and when he's gotten his opportunities. They got skill players, a really good (running) back, really good receivers. They do a great job schematically as well. And so whoever's playing quarterback for them is gonna be a tough challenge and we got to be ready to go."
In much that same vein, interim coach Chris Tabor is more focused on his own unit than whoever is throwing against them.
"I don't think there's any advantages (to facing Beathard)," Tabor said Wednesday. "You're still talking about NFL players, really good players, the guys that have been successful, an offense that's been explosive. They got a lot of weapons. At the same time, we're concentrating on ourselves, what areas can we improve on, and that's what we're focusing on. That's where our team is at right now. But, they do, they present some challenges, and we gotta be ready."
The 1,000-yard man
When running back Chuba Hubbard arrived back in Charlotte this offseason, he didn't really know where and how he'd fit into this offense. For that matter, as offensive coordinator Thomas Brown admitted Thursday, even coaches and staff were unsure of the best way to implement Hubbard into what they were doing.
Over the past 16 weeks, however, Hubbard has become an ever present factor on Bryce Young's hip and a safety blanket in the short passing game. As such, Hubbard is closing in on a 1,000-yard season in terms of total yards of scrimmage, a stat that is well within his grasp this year. He has 774 rushing yards, plus an additional 198 yards receiving, putting him 28 yards away from hitting four digits.
The approaching accolade is the culmination of work and belief."I really can't say enough about just the way he's handled everything, as far as coming into the year and what everybody else thought he was gonna be and his role was gonna be; even at times as far as the staff as, as far as how we started out with his role being for offense," Brown said.
"But, the epitome of a guy that goes to work every single day, has the right mentality and mindset, never complains, but also kind of just brings his lunch pail to work and encourage the rest of the group to kind of do a really good job as far as raising their level as well. So continue to try to find ways to get him involved. He's probably been one of our more consistent leaders we've had as far as his vocal leadership, but also on the field play as well. So hope to keep it going in the right direction."
Every second counts
As DJ Chark Jr. spoke on Thursday, walking through what went right and what went wrong in Sunday's loss to the Green Bay Packers, one of his teammates stuck his head through the media scrum surrounding Chark's locker.
"It's like Michael Jordan always said, 'I didn't lose, I just ran out of time.'"
That is much of what happened to the Panthers vs. the Packers, as they were a second too late in snapping the ball to line up for a game-tying field goal. While watching the tape this week however, and beginning preparations for the Jaguars defense, led by Foyesade Oluokun and Josh Allen, quarterback Bryce Young was reminded of a lesson that is often taught but is better learned.
"Just definitely want to start faster," Young said Wednesday. "We talked about that as a team. Definitely myself watching the film just, not wasting throws, not wasting possessions. We got to a point where it came down to a second."
Prior to the Panthers second quarter touchdown against the Packers, the offense had not scored a first half touchdown since Week 8, in a win over the Houston Texans.
In theory, every offense wants to start fast. It's the execution that can prove more difficult to attain. The Jaguars boast the league's leading tackler (Oluokun, with 160) but also are in the bottom 10 in total defense (358.5 yards per game) and are middle of the pack in scoring defense (22.9 points per game). So there is an opportunity there for Bryce Young, who had his best game as a rookie last week with two touchdowns and 312 yards, to hit the next step in his rookie development. It starts by taking advantage of every second given in a game.
"Every throw, every possession, every piece of yardage, all matters," Young said. "So, trying to start faster and clean that up. And then, it was just, I felt like as a unit, we started to hit our stride a little, which was obviously really encouraging.
"It was good to kind of see the little things, little details that went into that. So it was good to reflect on and then now, it's another week where we have to, we have to earn the right to be able to replicate those good things that we did and then learn from the stuff that we still have to improve on."
The Panthers and Raheem Blackshear lead the league in kickoff return average. The Panthers are averaging 27.2 yards per return (22 returns) while Blackshear's 14 returns have averaged 27.9 yards per return.
It's no surprise that even after being promoted to interim head coach, Chris Tabor is still wearing his special teams coordinator hat, working with Blackshear often during practice. That attention has become more and more rare around the league, according to Tabor, and it's why he believes his kick return unit has found success.
"I think sometimes a lot of people don't cover kicks. So if you don't cover kicks, you don't practice covering that and then therefore you have opportunities to return the ball," Tabor said.
To his point, every NFL team has allowed kickoffs to go for a touchback over half the time this season. The Packers bring the most kickoffs out of any team, and that unit even allows a touchback 58.4 percent of the time. It's part of an ongoing shift in rules and incentives to discourage returners from bringing a ball out during what many league doctors consider the most dangerous part of the game.
For those teams that do return kicks more (the Panthers have returned 29.5 percent of kickoffs this season, 11th most in the league), the lack of attention is an advantage. On Sunday however, they're facing a kicker in Brandon McManus that averages 62.8 yards on kickoffs, and has 73.3 percent go for touchbacks.
"This special teams unit is an excellent special teams unit that we're playing and McManus is an excellent kicker," Tabor said. "He's been in the league a long time, moves the ball around. He'll make it hard for Blackshear and they got guys that run down. So we got our work cut out."
The Panthers have the opportunity to significantly hurt another teams playoffs chances on Sunday, after effectively knocking the Atlanta Falcons out of the hunt with a win in Week 15. If the Jaguars currently have a 80.3-percent chance to make the playoffs regardless, and a 68.8-percent change to clinch their division title. That would happen on Sunday with a win over the Panthers, and a loss from the Colts and Texans.
If the Panthers pull the upset on Sunday, the Jaguars' playoff chances drop to 39 percent, and they'd need help to sneak into a Wild Card spot, much less win their division.
For the Panthers, they're still trying to find their first road win of the season. The chance to nab not only win number three, but also shake up the playoff race, is a tantalizing possibility for Carolina.
"We're only promised two more opportunities and we're going on the road against a really good team that's, that's looking to get in the playoffs. So, for us, it's a playoff game (too)," Tabor said.
And as for his team wanting to play spoiler?
"There's nothing wrong with that. I think that's what competitors do. As I've always said, if they're gonna turn the scoreboard on, we're gonna keep score, we wanna win. Regardless of what you're record is you go out there. I'm representing the players that are with me. We're brothers and I have the name on my back.
"Did I do everything that I possibly could do to help us win? And to be able to lay your head on your pillow at night and say yes, I did everything that I was supposed to do, that's how it should be. That's what a pro does. That's what we're expected to do and that's what we need to do."
Carolina is 3-3 against Jacksonville all-time.