Jets vs. Panthers 2013 game preview: Will Carolina solidify playoff spot?

The Panthers were shaken by a blowout loss to the Saints last week. Will they regain control of their playoff destiny against the Jets on Sunday?

The Carolina Panthers took a sharp blow to their ego last week during a 31-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Fans have begun questioning (mildly) an almost assured spot in the playoffs. They may be able to breathe a sigh of relief if the Panthers beat the New York Jets. Lose, and alarm bells will be ringing loudly heading into Week 16's rematch with New Orleans.

The Panthers SHOULD win. The Jets are coming off a 37-27 win over the Oakland Raiders, but they managed just 20 total points over three straight losses prior to Sunday. The Jets are eyeing a bid in a wide-open AFC wild-card race, however. If Geno Smith's mercurial performance this season can take an upward tick to close out the regular season, the Jets could be dangerous.

Meet the Panthers

Last week's game excluded, the Panthers are arguably the hottest team in the NFL. They had won eight straight games prior to last Sunday, five of those games by double digits. Of course, it'd be unfair to overlook their performance in New Orleans. The Panthers' vaunted defense gave up 313 yards and four touchdowns to Drew Brees, and Cam Newton had one of his worst outings of the year, passing for 160 yards, his lowest total since Week 1.

Thankfully for the Panthers, Brees' performance is an outlier. They have relinquished 13 passing touchdowns to 16 interceptions this season, and had a 9:16 TD:INT ratio prior to Brees' performance. Also worth noting is that the front seven was able to hold the Saints to 69 yards on the ground. The Panthers' run defense is first in the NFL, giving up 79.4 yards per game at a fourth-best 3.8 yards per carry average.

Meet the Jets

That stat about the Panthers' run defense is bad news for a Jets offense that may need to run the ball to have any kind of success Sunday. The Jets average a healthy 126.1 yards per game on the ground at 4.3 yards per carry. Their 384 rushing attempts is eighth-most in the NFL. In their six wins, they averaged more than 151 yards per game and in their seven losses they averaged fewer than 105 yards.

Running the ball also has the added benefit of taking pressure off Smith, who has thrown just one touchdown to nine interceptions in his last six games. The Jets have won despite Smith before -- in Week 9, he went just 8-for-19 passing for 115 yards against the Saints -- thanks to the run game and a stout defense. A superlative performance by Smith would certainly make the Jets' task much easier, however.

Local Takes: Panthers

Jaxon at Panthers blog Cat Scratch Reader says that while "Riverboat Ron" has the Panthers winning games, the team may need some "Regular Rivera" to make sure it takes care of business down the regular-season stretch:

Yet in spite of that obvious fault the old Rivera is still needed by this team, especially now. I'm referring to two things prevalent from Rivera's first two, less successful seasons. First off, in spite of being out of play off contention at this point the past two seasons Rivera never lost his locker room. The former player and SB champ has always related well to his players and kept their respect. Even those in his proverbial doghouse. Consequently I fully expect this team to bounce back this week from the ugly loss, something I couldn't always count on from a John Fox team.

Local Takes: Jets

John B at Jets blog Gang Green Nation says that the key to Sunday's game may be forcing Cam Newton to make mistakes via the pass rush.

Cam Newton is a good quarterback. When I watch his mistakes, something sticks out, though. When he turns the football over, it seems inordinately because he has gotten flustered by small glitches in his protection that destroy his mechanics and force errant passes. These mistakes seem to be caused by protection lapses so minor that they should not bother a quarterback. On the other side, Jets fans always need to worry about Geno Smith's turnovers. Newton is not nearly as turnover prone, but this is worth watching.

Follow the Fun

Be sure to check out SB Nation's team blogs, Cat Scratch Reader and Gang Green Nation, for more analysis and highlights from the game.

Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:

@CatScratchReadr

@GangGreenNation

@josephperson -- Panthers beat writer

@MMehtaNYDN -- Jets beat writer

Prediction

From Ryan Van Bibber's Week 15 picks:

Geno Smith blamed his considerable struggles on "playing like a robot." That's not fair to robots. Besides, no robot would be forced to disrupt its focus with wildcat play at the worst possible moment. The Jets were against-the-spread darlings earlier in the season, but they covered just once in their last four games. Big spreads like this make it hard to pick, but if Carolina gets its pass rush working again, robot Geno could need a few more repairs at the end of the day.

The pick: Panthers

Odds

The Panthers opened the week as 10-point favorites, and the spread has since grown according to OddsShark.

Next Week

The Jets will return home to host the Cleveland Browns in Week 16. The Panthers will host the New Orleans Saints in what will be the second pivotal meeting between the two teams in three weeks.

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