Offensive key: The Panthers were so good at protecting the ball - until last week against the Giants. Quarterback Cam Newton threw two interceptions due in large part to miscommunication with rookie tight end Ian Thomas. Newton was also lucky a fumble wasn't recovered by New York. At any rate, Carolina needs to stay turnover-free against Washington. The Panthers are better than the Redskins, but turning the ball over is a great way to get beat. Heck, it nearly cost the Panthers in what should have been a comfortable victory last week.
Defensive key: Concerns about the pass rush are growing louder after the Panthers hardly touched Eli Manning. There's a lot that goes into this: offenses max-protecting, quarterbacks getting the ball out quickly, etc. But this defense has always prided itself on affecting the passer. One way or another, the Panthers are going to see some one-on-one matchups somewhere along the line of scrimmage. Whoever that is has to win more consistently. Washington has been solid in protection, so a couple extra blitzes might be in the cards. And wouldn't you know it, Thomas Davis - Carolina's best blitzing linebacker - is set to return after serving his four-game suspension.
Gutsy guess: Newton is still 0-for on passes that have traveled more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season. After watching the Saints shred Washington with big plays, I say Newton has not one, BUT TWO completions on deep balls Sunday.
Offensive key: All turnovers are not created equal. Some count a little bit more. If a certain Washington cornerback were to get his hands on the ball Sunday, it could change the complexion of everything. Washington's defense will be seeking a spark after getting run out of town by the Saints on Monday night, and a big play by Josh Norman would be just what the doctor ordered. You can count on Norman bringing boundless energy to the matchup with his former team, but making an impact isn't guaranteed. Cam Newton and Co. shouldn't and won't shy away from Norman, and if they strike first and strike at Norman's resolve and possibly his composure, that would certainly set a winning tone.
Defensive key: Big-time backs Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliot were held to a modest total of 117 rushing yards in a pair of home victories for the Panthers. In Carolina's one road game to date, the Panthers suffered their one loss to date in Atlanta not when Devonta Freeman but rather reserve Tevin Coleman rushed for 107 yards all by himself. Next up for the defense is Adrian Peterson, who has averaged 108 rushing yards in Washington's two victories and 13 yards in Washington's two losses. Doesn't get much more straightforward than that.
Gutsy guess: During Kawann Short's special 2015 season, he didn't get his first of 11 sacks - a record for Panthers defensive tackles - until a Week 6 game in which he had two. Short had two in the 2018 season opener but none since. Alex Smith is as capable as any quarterback that has confounded Carolina's pass rush of late when it comes to making quick decisions, but Short will be a step quicker after Carolina stymies the run and will record the 10th multi-sack game of his career.
Carolina is 6-8 against Washington all-time.
Offensive key: The Panthers should win this game. But their struggle to put away the Giants, another team they were better than, makes me wonder if this is going to be a close affair throughout. If so, the Panthers have to do a better job on third down. Right now they're 19-for-49 on third, a 38.8 percentage that ranks them 20th. The Redskins' defense may be fifth in total yards, six against the run and seventh against the pass, but they've struggled to get off the field, ranking 27th in third-down percentage against.
Defensive key: In the Redskins' two wins, they've scored four touchdowns on five trips inside the red zone. In their two losses, they're 2-for-5. The Panthers finally got a red zone stop last week, but that was after opponents scored all seven times they crossed the 20-yard line. If it's going to be close, the Panthers have to do the little things – like holding a not-so-potent offense to field goals.
Gutsy guess: Through four games last year, Julius Peppers had 4.5 sacks. Through four games this year, he's still stuck on zero, a number he hasn't seen after the first month of the season since 2007. The hope is Peppers is now ready to roll after essentially finishing his preseason. Remember, he was extremely limited in the spring and summer after undergoing shoulder surgery. Redskins quarterback Alex Smith has been sacked nine times. My guess is Peppers alone will raise that number to 10.5.