By: Joe Messineo
There will be no playoffs this season for the San Diego Chargers. But, somehow, the Bolts’ plight doesn’t seem nearly as bad as that of their upcoming opponent.
The Chargers will travel across country Sunday to face the Carolina Panthers, who a year ago were the darlings of the National Football League. Led by 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton and a stingy defense, the Panthers finished 15-1 in the regular season and made it to the Super Bowl before losing to Denver.
Ten months later, Carolina sits at 4-8 while wearing the label of the NFL’s “Most Disappointing Team” of 2016. What a difference a season makes.
Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s matchup, which is set for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers’ Plight
It’s difficult to know where to begin when describing Carolina’s struggles this season. The team started their season on Opening Night with a loss to the Denver Broncos, which didn’t raise any red flags since it was a close game and it was the defending champs. The Panthers lost six of their first seven games and are coming off a humbling 40-7 beatdown at the hands of Seattle.
Newton, who was benched for the first series of last Sunday’s game because he violated coach Ron Rivera’s dress code (he didn’t wear a necktie), is having one of his worst seasons as a pro. Meanwhile, Carolina’s defense – so good a year ago – ranks 28th in the NFL in points allowed and 23rd in total defense.
Leading the Charge
San Diego sits at 5-7 after falling to Tampa Bay last Sunday and, barring a miracle, has dropped out of the AFC playoff picture. In many respects, the Chargers haven’t been able to get out of their own way: they rank among the league leaders in both takeaways and turnovers.
Quarterback Philip Rivers has been as productive as ever but has also tossed 14 interceptions, the second-highest total in the NFL. Still, the Chargers offense has multiple weapons, including running back Melvin Gordon – who needs only eight yards to reach 1,000 for the season – while wide receiver Tyrell Williams has emerged as Rivers’ favorite target.
On defense, cornerback Casey Hayward has been a bright spot and leads the NFL with seven interceptions.
What about Luke?
Carolina’s top defender is linebacker Luke Kuechly, a perennial Pro Bowler who was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Kuechly leads Carolina with 102 tackles but has been sidelined since Week 11 because of a concussion. His status for Sunday’s game remains unclear.
By The Numbers
*Gordon is poised to become San Diego’s first running back to rush for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in a season since 2008.
*Chargers tight end Antonio Gates needs just two touchdowns to tie for the most by a tight end (111) in NFL history. Tony Gonzalez is the current NFL record-holder.
*Carolina leads the all-time series with San Diego 4-1. San Diego’s only win over the Panthers was in 2004.