The Redskins control their playoff destiny, starting tonight at home against the Panthers
Washington won the NFC East last year at 9-7. A victory Monday night against the Carolina would put the Redskins at 8-5-1 and with two more chances to match or surpass last year’s win total.
But this year, that’s only good enough for third place in their division. Dallas (12-2) has already clinched a playoff spot and can sew up the NFC East with a win next week, while the New York Giants (10-4) are two wins shy of the next closest team in the wild card hunt. The Redskins can solidify their claim over on the second post with a win while a loss would slot them behind the Buccaneers and Packers (both 8-6).
For the Panthers, last year’s Super Bowl run seems like a distant memory as they have tumbled to 5-8. Getting back to .500 is the lone goal that remains for a team that went 15-1 and come up a game shy of winning the Lombardi Trophy just a season ago.
Series History: Redskins lead 7-5 but Panthers have won last four meetings, including 44-16 in Charlotte last season.
Carolina at Washington
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Redskins -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Panthers’ two big stars even play? How effective will they be if they do suit up?
Quarterback Cam Newton is expected to start Monday night despite being limited in practice this week with shoulder soreness. The NFL MVP in 2015, Newton has struggled through a tough season, with four straight games of completing less than half of his passes and just one game with a QB rating of 100 or better (Week 2 vs. San Francisco). Derek Anderson (2 TDs, 5 INTs) hasn’t fared better in his two starts (five total games) in place of Newton, so it’s crucial for him to play if Carolina has any shot of putting together one final winning streak to put together some positive momentum headed into the offseason.
But how effective will Newton be? After being benched for the first play in Seattle two weeks ago for a dress code violation, he followed up a poor performance with a season-low 10 completions in 27 attempts at home against the Chargers. Playing like a guy who’s not 100 percent (both physically and fully invested), Newton needs to hit the reset button, get this season over and heal up.
Meanwhile, the Panthers’ defensive leader, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is questionable to play due to a concussion. He was cleared from the league-mandated concussion protocol over the weekend, but it’s possible he could just sit out the remaining games with the team all but eliminated from playoff contention.
In his absence, the team gave up 75 points to the Raiders and Seahawks in back-to-back lopsided losses before rebounding with a win at home over the Chargers last week. In both Newton’s and Kuechly’s cases, you have to wonder if it’s worth it to put the two faces of the franchise at risk while basically playing for pride.
2. Can Kirk Cousins keep it up?
Cousins continues his late-season push in his attempts to improve his bargaining position for a long-term contract in the offseason. Once again, he was brilliant late when it mattered most last week against Philadelphia, leading the final drive that put Washington ahead to stay with less than two minutes remaining. That was the Redskins fifth straight win over their division rivals, as Cousins is earning a reputation for coming up big in major moments. For the season, Cousins is third in the NFL with 4,045 passing yards and sixth with a QB Rating of 100.3. Not bad for a guy who was 0-2 with a touchdown and three interceptions to start the season.
Here are the quarterbacks with a better rating right now than Cousins: Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. That’s pretty good company, the type that may force the ‘Skins to pony up to make a long-term deal happen, especially if this season concludes with a second straight playoff appearance. The team now controls its own destiny (win out and Washington is in) and it may be the same for Cousins in terms of his contract.
Oh, and did we mention Carolina is 30th in the NFL with 272.4 passing yards per game allowed? Monday night couldn’t be a better opportunity for Cousins to shine.
3. How will the Redskins’ run game perform?
Rookie Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson had solid games last week against the Eagles, combining for 101 rushing yards and two touchdowns. But Carolina has been solid against the run, giving up just 90.2 yards per game.
The key to success for the Kelley/Thompson combo Monday night is all about finding a rhythm while looking ahead. The Week 17 home date with the Giants could be a must-win situation to get into the playoffs and New York’s defense has been playing lights out lately, including limiting Detroit to two field goals and just 56 yards on the ground in Sunday’s 17-6 victory. Building confidence Monday night against a strong defense would be a key step in Kelley’s development and help him get ready for what could potentially be on the line in a few weeks.
The Redskins are playing a game they have to win. The Panthers? They’re playing a game for pride, on the road, where they’re 1-5 this season. It’s hard to see them pulling this one out even if Cam Newton rediscovers his MVP form.
Prediction: Redskins 31, Panthers 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.