If you usually look past the NFL’s weekly Thursday night offering due to the uninspiring matchups, we can’t say we blame you. But this week has the potential to be very different.
The Panthers pay a rare visit to Pittsburgh for a rare pairing of Super Bowl contenders on Thursday night. The Steelers are 5–2–1 and hold a half-game lead on the Bengals in the AFC North. Carolina is 6–2 and trails New Orleans by a game in the NFC South.
The Steelers have played most of their division schedule already, with only the season finale against Cincinnati remaining. In theory they could render that game meaningless if they pile up enough wins between now and then. The Panthers close with three straight inside the NFC South, including both meetings with the Saints. So while this isn’t a must-win, they will be looking to stay within striking distance of the division leaders.
Carolina at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 8 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Steelers -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Strength vs. strength when Carolina has the ball
Thanks in part to Cam Newton’s running ability from the quarterback position, the Panthers lead the NFL in yards per carry and rank second in both rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns. That will test a Steelers defense that has struggled against the pass but ranks in the top 10 in all those categories against the run. In fact, since allowing more than 300 yards on the ground in the first two games of the season, the Steelers have held every opponent under 100 yards, and only one of those gained more than 74. Over that same time period, the Panthers are 5–1 and have failed to reach 100 yards on the ground just once — in the game they lost to the Redskins. Newton is having his best season as a passer, but moving the ball on the ground still matters to Carolina.
2. Battle of the versatile running backs
Le’Veon Bell still hasn’t reported for the Steelers, but James Conner is doing his best impression as his replacement. Conner ranks second in yards from scrimmage in the NFL with 1,085, is averaging 10.0 yards per catch on 38 catches, and is tied for fourth in the league with 10 total touchdowns. Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey also has thrived in an expanded role this season. As a rookie last year he caught 80 passes but carried just 117 times for 435 yards (3.7 ypc). Already this season he has 109 carries for 502 yards (4.6 ypc) while on pace to blow past his strong 2017 receiving numbers with a team-high 49 catches for 378 yards. And getting the ball in his hands has been key for the Carolina offense: When McCaffrey gets more than 16 touches, the Panthers are 4–1 and average 33.2 points per game; when he gets 16 or fewer touches, they are 2–1 but average just 18 points per contest.
3. Long road begins for Panthers
Carolina has taken advantage of a quirky schedule, going 5–0 at home so far this season. Now the Panthers face the downside of that with four of their next five on the road. This looks like the toughest test among those games, but a win in the Steel City would sure be a nice start to a challenging stretch. Newton has been virtually the same quarterback at home and on the road throughout his career; his career passer rating is 86.6 at home and 86.3 on the road, and this season it is over 100 no matter where the games have been played. He’ll need to be at his best in this one, though, because Ben Roethlisberger has a long history of doing his best work at home.
These teams both seem to be a bit under the radar thanks to all the attention paid to the high-flying offenses in Los Angeles, Kansas City and New Orleans. And maybe the Panthers lack a little bit on offense to keep up, while the Steelers’ issues stopping the pass could derail them in the playoffs. But there’s also a scenario that’s not too crazy that has these teams meeting in the Super Bowl. For all the Thursday night snoozers, this one is worth your time.