Superman returns to Bank of America Stadium Sunday as the Panthers welcome the Washington Football Team for a key NFC matchup. Cam Newton will make his home debut after re-signing with the team that drafted him. And oh yeah, his former coach will also be on hand. Ron Rivera is in his second season as Washington’s head coach and is making his first appearance at Carolina since leaving the team in 2019. After making the playoffs last season, Washington isn’t doing so well this year – they’re 3-6 but are coming off a surprising upset of the Bucs. The Panthers are riding high after their impressive win over Arizona last week that moved them to 5-5 on the season.
Both these teams feature former Panthers at quarterback – Newton will start for the Panthers, and his former backup Taylor Heinicke runs the Washington offense following a season ending injury to Ryan Fitzpatrick in week one. Heinicke has thrown for 2,184 yards with 12 touchdowns, and he’s also a threat to run, he’s second on the team in rushing. And he’s got something else going for him according to Panther linebacker Haason Reddick. “He’s competitive, really, really competitive,” said Reddick. “I like it. He’s somebody that gets them going, can make plays with his feet. I’m excited for the challenge this week.”
Heinicke is missing plenty of his offensive weapons, including former Panther receiver Curtis Samuel, but he’s got his favorite target: Terry McLaurin is a playmaker with 49 catches for 642 yards and four touchdowns. Washington’s running backs are also receiving threats, with Antonio Gibson and J. D. McKissic combined for 500 yards and two touchdowns. Gibson leads the way on the ground, he’s got 506 yards and a team high five touchdowns. They’ll face a Panther defense that ranks number two in total defense and is number one against the pass allowing just 173 yards a game.
It’s the opposite story for Washington’s defense, they’re ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every category. And now both star defensive ends are out, with Chase Young joining Montez Sweat on IR this week. But there are some bright spots – the run defense has been very good, they’re allowing just 97 rushing yards per game, that’s 6th in the league. And defensive tackle Jonathan Allen has been outstanding, he leads the team with six sacks. Former Tar Heel linebacker Cole Holcomb leads the team in tackles and has one pick and two forced fumbles, Veteran cornerback Kendall Fuller anchors the secondary. They’ll face a Panther team that struggled much of the season to move the ball – until last week against Arizona, that is, when Newton gave them a shot of much-needed energy.
So will the Panthers be able to duplicate last week’s success against Washington? Running back Christian McCaffrey is confident they can get it done. “We’re here to win,” said McCaffrey. “We’ve got a new quarterback, Cam stepping in. But we’re here to execute and play really good football on Sunday.”
by Sharon Thorsland