Just two weeks ago, it seemed as though the Indianapolis Colts had turned a corner, reeling off three wins in a row to get to 3-2. Unfortunately, they've fallen back a bit with two straight losses to the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints to fall to 3-4.
The Panthers, who are an incredible 6-0 currently, seem to have found the perfect mix of offensive and defensive talent. Even without wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Cam Newton has led the offense in a big way. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Josh Norman and Jared Allen have led the way on defense.
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Here are three keys to the game for both the Colts and the Panthers.
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1. Give Luck time to operate
Luck was sacked four times as part of a dismal day against the Saints in Week 7 -- he also threw two interceptions. The task gets no easier this week as the Colts face a Carolina defense that has recorded nine sacks over the past two games. The Colts' offensive line, which has been inconsistent all season, might need extra help from the tight ends to block in this one.
2. Sell out to stop the run
The Panthers like to run the ball and they've been good at it. Carolina leads the league in rushing with an average of 144.7 yards per game. Newton and the Panthers haven't had nearly as much success in the passing game, with the quarterback averaging a career-low completion percentage of 55.8. Indianapolis needs to force Newton to make plays with this arm, rather than his legs. The Colts gave up 183 yards on the ground to the Saints last weekend and have to put up a much better effort in stopping the run to have a chance at slowing down the Panthers.
3. Let Gore carry the load
The Panthers boast a stingy defense that is holding opponents to just over 18 points per game and has only allowed one 300-yard passer through the first six games. That's bad news for Andrew Luck and the struggling Indianapolis offense. The ground game, however, provides an opportunity for success, as the Panthers have given up an average of 144 yards rushing over the last three games. With Luck still trying to figure things out, the Colts need to lean on Gore, who is averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
1. Let Cam run wild
The Colts haven't truly been tested on the ground by opposing quarterbacks yet, but have allowed 24 rushes for 88 yards on the year to the position. Tyrod Taylor is the only quarterback they've matched up against who is a running threat. Taylor rushed nine times for 41 yards against them. Newton should see quite a few carries this week, and it could result in a huge day on the ground for him.
2. Keep Stewart rolling in the run game
In the previous two games, Stewart has reverted back to looking like a true No. 1 running back after a slow start to the year. In those two games against the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles, Stewart has rushed 44 times for 203 yards and two touchdowns. If he can continue his hot stretch, the Panthers may be well on their way to 7-0.
3. Tally sacks against Luck
As mentioned above, Luck was sacked four times against the Saints in Week 7, which wound up being a big part of New Orleans grabbing the win. If the Panthers can get constant pressure and bring down Luck a few times, it may result in a few forced throws and turnovers. If Luck winds up forcing the action anywhere near the direction of these swarming cornerbacks on Carolina, it'll be a long day for the former No. 1 pick.