The Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts square off on Monday Night Football in a battle of two teams seemingly headed in opposite directions. The Panthers have started the season 6-0, while the Colts are struggling at 3-4 and have lost two games in a row.
Carolina is surging thanks to an elite defense and Cam Newton playing quality football. Despite the lack of weapons at wide receiver, Newton led the Panthers to their sixth straight win with the likes of Ted Ginn and Philly Brown playing significant snaps. After a slow start, Jonathan Stewart found his groove again, rushing for 125 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles last week. The offense is far from the best in the league, but it's done enough to help the Panthers win games while the defense terrorizes opponents.
The Colts were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders after loading up on veteran free agents in the offseason, but they haven't lived up to the hype. Andrew Luck took a big step backwards, throwing nine interceptions in just five starts. There were reports that he's been dealing with a rib injury in addition to the shoulder injury that caused him to miss two games, but Indianapolis needs Luck to get back to his old self if it wants to be a real force in the AFC.
The heat has been turned up on head coach Chuck Pagano, who is reportedly at odds with general manager Ryan Grigson. Pagano's contract expires after this season, and all indications are that he's already a lame duck. The Colts likely won't make any changes this week, but if they don't start winning again it's entirely possible they make changes during the Week 10 bye.
Despite all the turmoil, the Colts are still in the playoff hunt thanks to a laughably bad AFC South. Sitting in first place at 3-4, it's possible Indianapolis could win the division with a 6-10 record. That obviously won't be enough to save Pagano's job, but if Luck is healthy and playing well in January, who knows what might happen?
Either way, a road win over the Panthers would go a long way toward salvaging Indianapolis' season.
The Colts have a 59.2 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders. They are the only teams in the league with a losing record and playoff odds better than 50 percent. The AFC South, everyone.
Indianapolis ranks just 26th in rushing yards per game -- not the kind of production it was hoping for when it brought in veteran Frank Gore. Ahmad Bradshaw was signed recently as insurance, and it would not be a surprise if he started playing a bigger role on passing downs.
The defense has been a tire fire, giving up 408.6 yards per game, dead last in the league. It's a situation that's led to early deficits and forcing the offense into comeback mode, which is where Luck has typically made most of his mistakes. Failing to properly address the defense could end up being Grigson's biggest failing.
Carolina's defense is as good as advertised, ranking eighth in passing yards per game, sixth in interception rate and sixth in points allowed per game. They have yet to give up more 23 points. The offense, as expected, isn't a strong spot but they're tops in the league with 144.7 rushing yards per game. This is the kind of football Ron Rivera wants to play -- tough, old-school, kind of ugly but strangely compelling. The Panthers may have hit that sweet spot in 2015.
Who to watch
Josh Norman, Panthers cornerback: Norman has emerged as one of the top shutdown corners in football, making highlight-reel interceptions nearly every week. He has four picks on the year, tied with Mike Adams and Charles Woodson for the league lead. Norman is going to be a matchup nightmare receiver for anyone who lines up against him.
Donte Moncrief, Colts wide receiver: With T.Y. Hilton likely going to Norman Island, Luck will need someone else to step up, and Moncrief sounds like the ideal candidate. The second-year receiver got a chance to shine with Andre Johnson showing signs of decline and leads the team with five receiving touchdowns.
How to watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
Most experts expect the Panthers to walk with this one. Both the CBS Sports and ESPN panels are unanimously picking Carolina to win. Here at SB Nation, it's not a clean sweep but almost. Seven of our eight experts think the Panthers will come out on top, with only Joel Thorman going out on a limb and taking the Colts.
The Panthers are 7-point favorites with an over/under of 46.5, according to OddsShark.