Monday night’s matchup will feature a pair of first-place teams as the Indianapolis Colts travel to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers. In spite of a losing record, the 3-4 Colts enter Week 8 sitting atop an inferior AFC South division. Indy will try to regain some traction after dropping back-to-back games to the Patriots and Saints. The Colts also will be looking to earn their first victory of the season against a team outside of their own division. Indianapolis is 0-4 against teams that do not reside in the AFC South.
The 6-0 Carolina Panthers will be vying to extend their perfect record by parlaying a Week 7 victory over the Eagles into a Week 8 win against the Colts in yet another prime-time setting. A stellar defense led by Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman and Thomas Davis is complemented by the NFL’s top rushing attack serving as the catalysts for the NFC South-leading Panthers. Carolina is tasked with fending off a struggling, yet dangerous Indianapolis team at home to wrap up Week 8.
This will be just the sixth meeting all-time between the Colts and Panthers, dating back to 1995. Carolina has commanded the series with a 4-1 overall record. Monday night will be just the second time that Indianapolis has visited Bank of America Stadium. Coincidentally, the Colts' first and only trip to Charlotte in 2007 resulted in their lone win in the series, a dominant 31-7 victory.
Indianapolis at Carolina
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Monday)
Spread: Carolina -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. An Increased Role for Frank Gore
There is no question that Gore should be playing a much larger role in the Indianapolis offense. The Colts have, by in large, ignored the talents of their feature running back throughout the season, sometimes due to circumstances dictated by the game, and other times seemingly by choice. In spite of a healthy 4.6 yards per carry, Gore is averaging just 14 rushing attempts per game. Far too few for a talented feature running back that is not limited by a running back by committee situation. He is also underutilized in the Colts' passing attack, a role in which Gore has flourished at times throughout his career.
The Carolina Panthers do not have many weaknesses on defense, but opposing offenses have found success against them running the football. Carolina ranks just 19th in the NFL in rushing defense, giving up 110 yards and a touchdown per game on average. Just last week, they allowed a struggling Eagles rushing attack to run for 177 yards against them. The Colts must find a way to get the ball to Gore early and often, be it by ground or as a receiver out of the backfield. He could be the catalyst for a Colts offense that can no longer afford to rely solely on an underachieving Andrew Luck, especially against a ball-hawking Panthers secondary.
2. T.Y. Hilton vs. Josh Norman
One matchup worth paying special attention to on Monday night will be Norman, the Panthers' lock-down cornerback, against Hilton, the Colts' top target. Everyone is familiar with Hilton and the elite skill set he brings to the table week in and week out. In fact, an already struggling Colts passing attack might be completely defunct altogether if not for Hilton’s contributions. He has been especially hot of late, accumulating 224 yards and three touchdowns in his last two contests. That being said, Hilton may just meet his match tonight against Norman.
Norman has been one of the best defensive backs in the NFL so far this season, if not the best. In six games, he already has four interceptions to go along with 10 pass breakups. In addition, opposing quarterbacks also have accumulated the worst passer rating in the NFL when throwing in Norman’s direction. Norman is expected to shadow Hilton throughout the game, but the Colts will likely find ways to move Hilton around to draw better matchups against the likes of Charles Tillman and Panthers nickel back Bene Benwikere. While Tillman and Benwikere are no slouches in their own right, Hilton stands a much better chance of success with those matchups as opposed to Norman. Any way you slice it, Hilton and Luck have their work cut out for them against a stingy Panthers pass defense. It should be interesting.
3. The Panthers' Rushing Attack
No one is going to accuse the Panthers' ground-and-pound offense of being flashy, the exception being the occasional highlight-reel run or throw by Cam Newton. But what Carolina does on offense by running the football has proven highly effective. The combination of Jonathan Stewart pounding away at the interior, big-play scrambles from Newton, and Mike Tolbert finishing drives at the goal line have given way to an NFL-best 144 rushing yards per game and seven touchdowns on the ground in six contests.
You can expect more of the same from Carolina against an Indianapolis defense that has struggled mightily of late to stop the run. In the last two weeks, the Colts' porous run defense gave up 177 rushing yards and three touchdowns to New England, and allowed the Saints to run for 183 yards and an additional three scores on the ground. It is highly probable that the trend will continue tonight. Expect the Panthers do what they do best and find success exploiting a bad Colts run defense.
Andrew Luck and the Colts' rocky road so far in 2015 could get a little rockier in Week 8 trying to find success against the Panthers, one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses. The Indy offense should be able to get things going with Frank Gore on the ground. The possibility also exists for Indy to find success by employing a more efficient short-passing game that focuses on better matchups with Gore, Coby Fleener and Donte Moncrief. The Colts' defense is a different story entirely. They have been nothing short of terrible of late and currently rank dead last in the NFL in total defense. So it stands to reason that Indianapolis will continue to have difficulty on that side of the ball on Monday night, especially in terms of stopping Carolina’s potent rushing attack.
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera will employ the same strategy that has gotten the Panthers off to a perfect 6-0 start, running the ball effectively, chewing up clock, and playing great defense. The Colts will likely try to stack the box to slow down the Panthers' outstanding run game, likely to little avail, but even if by some chance the Colts can stifle Carolina’s ground game to some degree, success can still be had with the Carolina passing attack against this defense. In spite of a lackluster cast of wide receivers to choose from, Cam Newton is just as dangerous with his arm as he is with his feet, and he has at least one weapon in tight end Greg Olsen that provides a matchup nightmare for any defense. On paper, Carolina appears to be an obvious mismatch for the Colts, but in typical Indianapolis fashion, they should find a way to keep it interesting. The Panthers win a close one at home on Monday night.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Colts 21
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.