It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips as the 3-5 Panthers travel to Kansas City to take on the 7-1 Chiefs on Sunday. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.
Barring something unforeseen pregame, running back Christian McCaffrey will return from his high ankle sprain. McCaffrey has been out for the last six games since suffering the injury in the second half of the Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay.
Having McCaffrey back will give the Panthers their key dynamic weapon both as a runner and in the passing game. But McCaffrey's presence won't mean we've seen the last of running back Mike Davis, who filled in admirably as Carolina's starter.
"You've got two guys that can catch the ball out of the backfield and can run the ball. It does give you matchups that you can look into and see if you want to take advantage of that," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. "Everything is on the table this week, for sure."
McCaffrey and Davis are currently tied for the team lead with four total touchdowns. McCaffrey's presence could benefit everyone on Carolina's offense because the star running back will presumably draw much of Kansas City's defensive attention. If that's the case, then wide receivers Robby Anderson, DJ Moore, and Curtis Samuel could have more opportunities on the outside. Samuel could also play a role in the backfield since he's taken a significant share of snaps there the last few weeks.
The Panthers have struggled mightily throughout the season to stop opponents on third down. Carolina enters Week 9 ranked 31st in the category, allowing a 54.2 percent conversion rate. Third down could especially be an issue against the Chiefs, who are No. 3 in converting 49.5 percent of their opportunities.
"We've not been good on third down all year," defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. "Last week a couple holding calls on third down hurt us a little bit and then a couple other things. And I think the guys are really aware of it, and we're working hard at it. But, we have not turned the corner yet. So hopefully, as this season progresses, we get that accomplished."
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes' third-down numbers are sterling. He carries a league-leading 135.6 passer rating on third down, completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 610 yards with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. Of Mahomes' 45 third-down completions, 36 have gone for first downs. He's also run for seven first downs on third down.
The Panthers have forced only one punt in their last two games combined against the Saints and Falcons. It's not going to be easy, but they'll have to find a way to do better against the Chiefs to win.
Have to limit turnovers
Kansas City is tied for the league's most takeaways with 14 — nine interceptions and five recovered fumbles. The Chiefs have forced at least one turnover in each of their eight games. Plus, they got four against both the Patriots in Week 4 and the Broncos in Week 7.
The Panthers haven't committed a giveaway in half of their games, but they've had nine combined in the other four.
"Ball security is the most important statistic in football, in my opinion," Brady said. "When you look at the wins and losses, a lot of it has to do with protecting the football. And that's our No. 1 job as an offense. When you look at this season, times that we're not taking care of the football, we're losing football games."
In last Thursday's loss to Atlanta and the Week 6 loss to Chicago, Carolina had a chance to at least tie the game on the offense's final drive. But quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw an interception to end both threats.
The Chiefs have been opportunistic on defense all season. With their explosive offense, the Panthers have to take care of the ball to have a shot at winning.
Can Carolina score enough points?
This is a twofold issue. The Panthers are averaging 22.4 points per game and have scored at least 30 points twice: Week 1 against the Raiders and Week 4 against the Cardinals. The Chiefs' defense is allowing only 19.0 points per game, the third-fewest in the league, and they've allowed more than 20 points just once this season: their Week 5 loss to the Raiders.
On the other hand, the Chiefs score 31.6 points per game and have scored at least 23 points every week.
From the raw numbers, that doesn't bode well for the Panthers. But that's also why they play the games.
One way the Panthers can stem the Chiefs' point total is through red-zone defense. Kansas City enters the second half of the season No. 10 in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 20 of the offense's 31 trips inside the 20.
"In any situation, a field goal's a win until the fourth quarter," head coach Matt Rhule said. "Field goals are takeaways to us. So a field goal is always a win. Conversely, on offense, we've got to score more touchdowns. We've kicked too many field goals, which is good, but it's not great. And what we need is great, and we need to limit great for the other team."
The Panthers' offense is No. 26 in the red zone, getting in the end zone on 14-of-26 chances. But Carolina could use some explosive scoring plays, too.
"We know what the Chiefs are capable of doing, and we don't want to sit back and be like, 'Man, we've got to turn this into a shootout,'" Bridgewater said. "I think for us, we've got to make sure that every drive we get, we end with a kick, and that being an extra point. We want to make sure that we're playing the game within ourselves, within our scheme, and go from there."
Can Carolina pressure Mahomes?
Mahomes does not get sacked often, taking only 10 so far this season. Bridgewater, by comparison, has been sacked 16 times. Plus, the Panthers are No. 29 with just eight sacks on the season.
But the best way to make an elite quarterback uncomfortable is to get pressure to make him uncomfortable in the pocket, often with just four pass rushers. Mahomes' worst game this season was Kansas City's Week 5 loss to the Raiders, when he completed only 51.2 percent of his passes, threw his lone 2020 interception, and got sacked three times.
"If we can pressure him, keep him uncomfortable in the pocket, hit him a lot, I feel like things will slowly start going our way," defensive end Brian Burns said. "We have to have a relentless rush to stay after him and to really get him down."
The problem is, even when Mahomes gets pressured, he can run out of the pocket and make ridiculous, dazzling plays.
"He scrambled out of the pocket to his left and threw across his body to a guy running the other way — that's just amazing to watch — and he's throwing it sidearm and with velocity," Snow said. "What's really amazing is he's hitting the guy in full stride. There's not a lot of guys who can do that."
Cornerback Rasul Douglas' return from the reserve/COVID-19 list may help because if the secondary can cover the Chiefs' receivers well, it increases the chances for the Panthers to disrupt the backfield. But Carolina's defense will need to have its best day in getting to the passer to affect Mahomes.
Carolina is 2-4 all-time in six meetings with Kansas City through the years.