Week 16 Preview: Panthers Face Ron Rivera for First Time Since Firing

by Bobby Bishop

Photo courtesy of Washington Football Team

The Carolina Panthers (4-10) will be visiting the Washington Football Team (6-8) on Sunday afternoon.

This game will be airing on CBS with the kickoff scheduled for 4:05 p.m. ET. One of the biggest stories of this game will be Washington head coach Ron Rivera’s first time facing the Panthers after getting fired by Carolina last season.

Rivera, one of the greatest coaches in Panther history, has been through a rough year. Carolina owner David Tepper fired Rivera midway through a bad 2019 season. Washington quickly snapped up the defensive-minded head coach.

In August 2020, Rivera was diagnosed with cancer. He has been an inspiration this season, coaching and simultaneously fighting cancer. He has not been declared cancer-free yet, but he finished his first round of treatments. 

Many Panther fans will be rooting for Rivera to succeed on Sunday, with the lingering fond memories of the team’s success under his tenure still fresh in their minds.

The Carolina Panthers don’t have much to play for this weekend, with their playoff hopes officially ending last week. Washington, on the other hand, is in the middle of a playoff race and can actually clinch the NFC East this week.

If the Football Team wins against the Panthers, they will have a very high chance of making the playoffs. They need only a Baltimore Ravens’ victory against the New York Giants to seal the division crown. If they lose, the worst division in the NFL gets even murkier.

Injury Report

The official injury report will go a long way to help determine which team has the advantage in this match-up. Carolina left guard Dennis Daley was placed on the reserve list on Tuesday due to a concussion. The injury list will most likely include superstar running back Christian McCaffrey (thigh), edge rusher Brian Burns (knee), and left tackle Russell Okung (calf).

All are currently listed as questionable. If these three key players are out for the Panthers, it will really hurt their chances to win this game. If McCaffrey returns for his fourth game of the season, the Panthers’ human highlight reel should provide endless entertainment — if not a victory. 

Washington has been struggling with injuries as well. Antonio Gibson (toe), a third-round rookie running back from Memphis, and quarterback Alex Smith (calf) may miss the game this weekend. Dwayne Haskins could be in line two make his second straight start in Smith’s absence. Last week against the Seattle Seahawks, Haskins threw two interceptions in a 20-15 loss. 

After pictures surfaced this week of Haskins maskless in a strip club, Haskins may be facing a four-game suspension. This suspension may leave Washington in a quarterback crisis similar to the Denver Broncos’ earlier this season. That’s if the league determines and enforces Haskins’ punishment by this weekend. The league does not usually act that quickly, but his presence this weekend is far from a certainty. 

Keys to the Game

Offense: Slow Chase Young and Montez Sweat Down

Chase Young and Montez Sweat might be the best edge rushing duo in the league. Young recently beat out Carolina’s Brian Burns for the 2020 Pro Bowl — even though Burns was statistically better in every category. Both Young and Sweat are huge, fast and can get to the quarterback in a hurry.

Even though it’s not entirely clear who will start at left tackle  (Okung or Trent Scott), Taylor Moton will face Montez Sweat on the right side. Moton has been a lone bright spot on the Panthers’ offensive line and should be able to limit Sweat’s impact.

Young, however, will feast if he is matched up with Scott. Okung stands the best chance to slow Young down. 

Regardless, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is going to have to get the ball out fast on screens or hitting short routes. If Bridgewater holds onto the ball too long, he’ll likely be pretty sore come Monday morning. 

Defense: Pressure the Quarterback

Whether it’s Smith or Haskins, the Panthers need to pressure the quarterback. After recovering from a disgusting leg injury, Smith is less mobile than early in his career. Haskins, on the other hand, can move around in the pocket, but if pressured often, is prone to mistakes. 

Burns, Carolina’s leading pass rusher, may be absent this week. The Panthers would need Efe Obada, Marquis Haynes, or Yetur Gross-Matos to step up and get after Washington’s quarterback. More snaps could be crucial for the development of Gross-Matos, who has dealt with an ankle injury this season.

A second-round pick in 2020 out of Penn State, Gross-Matos should become an impact player for this defense. Hopefully, he can add some worry to the life of whoever starts at quarterback for Washington this week. 

Update on the Tank

With Carolina officially eliminated from making the playoffs, the talk of tanking can begin. The Panthers are currently in line for the fourth overall pick, if they lose their remaining two games.

A pick that high would allow the Panthers to draft a franchise quarterback or the best defensive player in the draft, depending on the avenue they choose. If they win this week, they could move as low as 11th. If the Panthers win out, their pick could be as high as No. 15.

Head coach Matt Rhule’s team however, isn’t thinking about tanking. This football team is full of competitors, so it is no question that they will continue to fight. However, some fans may be cheering for a loss against Rivera’s football team this weekend.

Prediction

With Washington having so much to play for at home, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t pull out the win. A victory would go a long way toward Washington’s first NFC East title since 2015.

Prediction: Washington 31, Carolina 24

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