It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips when the Panthers face Washington on Sunday. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.
Of all the traits Panthers rookie Jeremy Chinn has shown this year, his instinctiveness is near the top. Simply put, he gets it, he doesn't get fooled by things another rookie might think he sees. Not every first-year player can manage that.
That may be why he was in no rush to lobby for himself this week for honors such as defensive rookie of the year, since he's far from a lock and not all that close to being the favorite, if we're being honest.
"I would just say watch the film," Chinn said. "That's my only argument. I'm not going to sit here and plead for myself on the microphone. I'd rather do that on the field. I would just say watch the film."
If that's all you do, Chinn has made a compelling case.
He leads all rookies with 100 tackles, has two defensive touchdowns, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, along with an interception.
He's also a second-round pick from Southern Illinois playing off the ball on a 4-10 team that hasn't gotten (or deserved) that much national attention, and he has more chances to make tackles because the Panthers' defense hasn't been great at getting off the field this year (30th in the league in third-down percentage).
Washington defensive end Chase Young, on the other hand, was the second-overall pick from Ohio State, playing on a top-five defense for a major-market team that could clinch the NFC East title Sunday.
And it's not that Young is some slappie, as he's proven to be the kind of impact rusher you can build a team around.
He had a sack, a forced fumble, and a fumble returned for a touchdown in Week 14 win over the 49ers, the kind of dramatic statement Chinn made in a loss to the Vikings.
For the year, Young has 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, which led to a Pro Bowl selection. He's also playing with a better grade of defensive talent around him, which makes it harder to stand out individually.
Young's coach, Ron Rivera, was more than diplomatic when asked about Chinn, letting loose an "Oh, wow," when his name was brought up.
"I think Jeremy Chinn is right up there," Rivera said. "I know people are pushing him for defensive rookie of the year, and I don't disagree with it. He has an opportunity to be it."
Rivera's nice to say that, even if it's unlikely to happen. That doesn't mean Chinn doesn't deserve notice, but even he seems to know that Young probably started with a big lead by virtue of draft status, geography, and name recognition, and has played well enough not to give that advantage away.
LAST CALL FOR TD?
It's customary for coaches to bring known commodities with them to new jobs, to help implement their plans and set the tone for a new cast of characters.
So it was unsurprising when Rivera brought veteran linebacker Thomas Davis to Washington. The surprising part is that Davis has barely played.
He's only been on the field for 137 snaps in seven games, and has just six tackles for the year.
Davis, who's already been ruled out for Sunday, is 37 years old now, and can't run like he could during his days with the Panthers. But he was more than serviceable last year for the Chargers, starting all 16 games and registering 112 tackles.
It's a shame if he goes out on this note, as he had a brilliant career even if you don't consider the fact he came back from three torn ACLs. But he did COME BACK FROM THREE TORN ACLs, and was arguably a better all-around player after than before.
When he entered the league as a first-round pick in 2005, he was a barely-guided missile, a player who ran fast and hit hard, even if the target wasn't always obvious. He learned to play football, however, and eventually earned Pro Bowl recognition (which isn't easy for 4-3 outside linebackers since they don't have giant sack numbers like their 3-4 counterparts who tend to take up all those spots).
Davis also won the 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year award for his off-field contributions.
His resume and what he had to overcome remains the stuff of stories. Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending.
LACKING OFFENSIVE IDENTITY
Rivera did some of his best work over his years in Carolina when he had a mixed bag of players to work with. He's kind of a mudder that way, able to slog through games when preparation and discipline have to be worth more than talent.
He may have hit the jackpot this weekend.
Washington doesn't know at the moment who's starting at quarterback Sunday, with Alex Smith listed as questionable with a calf injury, after some questionable decision-making by Dwayne Haskins last week. Haskins was fined after a maskless strip club visit, and likely would only play if Smith couldn't.
Quarterback records might not always be accurate indicators, but Washington is 4-1 when Smith starts, while Haskins is 1-4 (Former Panthers placeholder Kyle Allen was 1-3 before his season-ending injury).
Smith injured the calf on Dec. 13, missing the second half of the 49ers game and last week's. The injury is in his right leg, the one that was broken in 2018 and required 17 surgeries to repair.
Regardless of who's at quarterback, the task will be more difficult without leading receiver Terry McLaurin, who is doubtful with an ankle injury.
McLaurin is their one reliable wideout, with 80 catches for 1,078 yards. That's just short of twice as many yards as their next target (tight end Logan Thomas has 570 yards).
Without him, the Washington offense could be kind of a hash, but Rivera has made chicken salad out of things less than chicken before.
If the season ended today, the Panthers would head into the 2021 NFL Draft with the fourth overall pick.
Also, a lot of people would be saying "Why did the season end the Saturday of Week 16?"
This note is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered an endorsement of bad things happening to enhance draft status.
Winning is always better than losing, and draft picks tend to sort themselves out. Inertia is also a very real thing, as franchises that grow accustomed to losing for any reason tend to continue losing.
That's why Panthers coach Matt Rhule has been adamant that he'd play Christian McCaffrey if he were well enough to play. Rhule's job is to create a place where winning is the expectation, so he's always going to play the guys who are able.
With Panthers defensive end Brian Burns unlikely to play this week because of a knee sprain, the Panthers will be without another one of their multi-position players.
Burns has been effective as a stand-up linebacker and a down lineman this year, and the simple fact he can do both adds to that effectiveness.
Defensive coordinator Phil Snow admitted this week that without Burns, the Panthers won't be able to show as many looks this week.
In that regard, they're at least on even footing with the Football Team, as attrition becomes the annual factor in December game-planning.
Carolina is 6-9 against Washington all-time.