We're three months away from March Madness but the Green Bay Packers playing the Carolina Panthers Saturday night is the closest you'll get to a No. 1 seed playing a 16 in the NFL. The Packers enter Week 15 with the NFC's best record (10-3) by virtue of a tiebreaker, while the Panthers (4-9) are at the bottom because they are on the wrong end of one.
Strangely enough, in this weird 2020 the Panthers are still mathematically alive for the playoffs if they win out. Either way, they're building for the future behind a talented group of young offensive players who have carried the load in the absence of Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey. The Panthers are known for playing hard and keeping it close; five of their nine losses this season have been by five points or less. They also have a point differential (-25) better than four other NFC teams currently ahead of them in the standings.
The Packers, meanwhile, caught a break when the New Orleans Saints were upset by the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend. Now, Green Bay controls its own destiny for the top seed and an all-important bye as the NFL playoffs expand to seven teams per conference. Two of the team's final three games are on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, where the Packers are 5-1 this season and 17-4-1 over the past three. Earning home-field advantage with that track record and the freezing cold weather come January could make the difference in getting quarterback Aaron Rodgers and company over the hump and back into the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010.
That final push must begin by winning the games they're supposed to win. So can the Packers avoid the upset and keep the pesky Panthers at bay on Saturday night?
Carolina at Green Bay
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Packers -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and company outduel the Panthers' passing defense?
Despite missing two games this season with a hamstring injury, Adams has established himself as one of the NFL's elite receivers. With a dozen receiving touchdowns in the last eight games, he's now tied with Tyreek Hill for the NFL lead (14 total). Adams sits just 11 yards off the NFC lead with 1,144 receiving yards; his 91 receptions also rank second behind DeAndre Hopkins.
But Hopkins struggled during his matchup against the Panthers, gaining just 41 yards on seven catches without a touchdown. The reason? Cornerback Rasul Douglas, likely to be assigned to Adams on Saturday night and a prized find for the Panthers this offseason. Douglas and the Panthers' secondary need to clamp down on the engine that powers the Packers' offense. Adams is the fulcrum through which their big-play ability swings this year, more than Rodgers, running back Aaron Jones or breakout tight end Robert Tonyan.
For the Panthers passing defense, it could be a case of bad timing. They rank just 23rd in the NFL and took a big step back last week, allowing young Broncos QB Drew Lock to go 21-for-27 with four touchdowns and no interceptions. If they play at the same level against the Rodgers/Adams combo, they'll get steamrolled. It's as simple as that.
2. Who will win the battle on the ground?
The Panthers have struggled with the absence of Christian McCaffrey in the backfield. He's doubtful to play once again Sunday, nursing a thigh injury and left out of practice for much of the week. That means primary rushing duties fall to Mike Davis, who hasn't rushed for 100 yards a single time this season in McCaffrey's absence.
Even with that handicap, the Panthers are averaging a respectable 116 yards per game on the ground the last three weeks. Here's the problem; during that same stretch, the Packers are racking up 150.3 rushing yards per game of their own. Jones is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, good for third in the NFC, and killed off a potential Eagles upset two weeks ago with a season-best 77-yard run in the closing minutes. He'll be hard to stop pairing with Jamaal Williams in the backfield.
3. Can the Panthers keep it clean?
Here's a fact that might surprise you; the Panthers actually have a better turnover margin this season (+5) than the Packers (+4). Their 13 giveaways are the fifth-fewest in the NFL and they've had just one in the past two weeks (despite losing both games).
The Packers, meanwhile, have just nine giveaways, tied for the fewest in the NFL, but their defense struggles at forcing turnovers. That needs to change against a Panthers offensive line that's hobbling into the game with injuries; left tackle Russell Okung is questionable to play with an ankle issue and backup Greg Little was just placed on injured reserve.
The cracks in the Panthers' line started to show last week when Teddy Bridgewater was sacked four times against the Broncos, the most they've allowed since Oct. 18. In the meantime, the Packers' defensive line has heated up, piling up 11 sacks in wins against the Lions and Eagles. Can that front put pressure on Bridgewater and put the ball on the ground? One turnover might be all it takes to snuff the life out of any Panthers push for an upset on the road.
The Panthers continue to find a way to keep themselves in games. The culture under first-year head coach Matt Rhule looks promising as the team undergoes a long-term rebuilding project.
But there's a reason why UMBC-Virginia in college basketball comes around once every few decades or so. The Panthers just simply don't have the talent yet to keep up with Rodgers, Adams and a Green Bay team built to go deep into January.
Prediction: Packers 38, Panthers 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.