It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips as the 3-2 Panthers take on the 4-1 Bears. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.
Third down and the red zone
Chicago's defense is No. 4 overall, but No. 1 in the red zone and No. 2 on third down, making them excellent in critical situations. The Bears have allowed just a third of opponents' third down opportunities. Only seven of opponents' 19 drives inside the 20 have resulted in touchdowns.
As head coach Matt Rhule pointed out this week, Carolina ranks No. 6 in yards but No. 20 in points. That suggests the Panthers move the ball well but don't finish drives. The club is 27th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on just 10 of its 20 red zone trips.
"We haven't been efficient enough in that area. And a lot of (the failed red zone third downs) have been third-and-2 or 3, which is even more frustrating," Rhule said. "When we're able to run the football in the red zone, we score. When we're able to win some one-on-ones, we score."
The Panthers were in a similar situation in Week 4 when the Cardinals came to Charlotte as the league leader in third down defense and No. 2 in red zone defense. Carolina finished 7-of-11 on third down and 4-of-5 in red zone efficiency in that win. The Panthers could use a repeat performance against an elite defense on Sunday.
The fourth quarter
The Bears have been excellent in the fourth quarter, with three of their four wins generated by fourth quarter comebacks. While Chicago hasn't scored a point in the third quarter through five games, the club has outscored its opponents 55-16 in the fourth quarter. Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles has thrown for 301 yards with four touchdowns and one interception in the fourth quarter, though he's completing just 58.8 percent of his passes.
Foles' numbers don't set the world on fire. Still, Carolina won't underestimate his ability to lead a team in crunchtime.
"When teams are down, they're playing free, they're playing loose. They don't have anything to lose," Rhule said. "I think Chicago has a great quarterback in Nick Foles. He's just a proven winner."
Carolina must tighten up on defense in the fourth quarter. The Panthers have held double-digit leads in the second half of each of their three wins, but opponents have scored to make it close. Carolina has been outscored, 36-34, in the fourth quarter this season.
A "pissed off" Mike Davis
Running back Mike Davis totaled a career-high 149 yards from scrimmage last week in his hometown of Atlanta, and now he's facing the team that signed him as a free agent in 2019. Davis played seven games before the Bears released him last year, tallying just 25 yards rushing with seven receptions for 22 yards.
Davis didn't know why his time in Chicago didn't go better than it did, but he's glad to be with Carolina now. And it doesn't seem like Davis has any extra juice to compete against his former team. He wouldn't need it anyway.
"It's just like a switch," Davis said. "I just feel like the person in front of me shouldn't be there. … I don't know, I just want to destroy the person in front of me."
Replacing Kawann Short
Defensive tackle Kawann Short has suffered a season-ending shoulder injury for the second consecutive year, and now Carolina has to replace his production. Zach Kerr will likely start on Sunday, as he did when Short was out in Weeks 2 and 3 with a foot injury. But Carolina won't replace Short's production with one player.
"It's going to be by committee, and I think it's going to be cool to see some of the guys that haven't gotten the opportunities that they should've or that they could get, based on the guys that are in front of them," Kerr said.
Sixth-round pick Bravvion Roy could see his playing time increase. Rhule has touted Efe Obada's versatility to play both end and tackle. The Panthers may bring up a player from the practice squad as well, with a few spots open on the 53-man roster plus the ability to activate a player for the game.
Whoever is in must do a better job of defending the run after Carolina surrendered 6.9 yards per carry against Atlanta in Week 5.
"If everyone's in their gap, and defends their gap, and everyone tackles, then you can have a good run defense," Rhule said. "It's about guys not doing silly things, spinning out of gaps, not getting in the right gap. It's about tremendous discipline and toughness versus a very good offensive line and running game."
Can Bridgewater stay upright?
The Panthers have done an excellent job of protecting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater over the last two games. The quarterback has not been sacked, and opponents have registered just seven quarterback hits. The offensive line deserves plenty of credit for that, but so do the tight ends and running backs who have been instrumental in pass protection.
But the Bears' pass rush poses significant problems, led by former first-round pick Khalil Mack. Rhule coached against Mack when the edge rusher starred for the University at Buffalo and would use his film as teaching tape.
"He's just so consistent, plays so hard, and plays the run as well as they pass," Rhule said.
A quick-passing game could help the Panthers negate the intense pass rush, but it won't be easy to stop players like Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Robert Quinn.
Carolina is 4-6 all-time against the Chicago Bears.