In an early battle for the NFC lead, the Green Bay Packers (6-1) travel to Carolina to face the Panthers (7-0).
The Packers have been one of the most consistent franchises in the NFC in recent years, guided by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy.
While the Denver Broncos showed teams how to beat the Packers in last week’s romp on Sunday night, not all teams have Denver’s fast, athletic defense or a surgical quarterback like Peyton Manning.
Here’s a look at four matchups to watch on Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium:
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Aaron Rodgers vs. Panthers’ back seven
The way to beat any good quarterback is to get a consistent pass rush, throw him off his spot and force him to make bad decisions.
But the Panthers can’t rely on a consistent pass rush.
Carolina’s front four wore down as the game went on last week against the Colts, and while the Panthers are ninth in the NFL in sacks with 20, Green Bay boasts a strong offensive line and a quarterback who gets the ball out quickly.
Teams have been playing Rodgers with a single-high safety and press man coverage, but that concept may not work for the Panthers. Safeties Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman had their best game of the year last week, but can that continue? At 34, Charles Tillman had two big pass breakups in overtime, but Rodgers could expose Tillman’s age this week.
Then there’s nickel cornerback Bené Benwikere, who allowed six catches on seven targets for 69 yards and a touchdown last week. Can he keep up with Randall Cobb in the slot?
“It’s something we’ve seen the last couple weeks,” McCarthy said. “Every time you line up and play you learn from your last experience and that’s what we’re going to do and we’re going to apply it to our preparation this week.”
Working in Carolina’s favor are its linebackers, including Shaq Thompson, who returns this week from injury. That speed on the edges can emulate what Denver was able to do. And the Panthers have a shutdown corner in Josh Norman, who could eliminate one side of the field against the Packers.
Green Bay’s running game vs. Carolina’s rush defense
The Packers’ have a middle-of-the-road rushing offense averaging 122 yards per game and led by Eddie Lacy.
Lacy hasn’t been running with good pad level in recent weeks, not staying low and using his 230-pound frame to bowl over defenders to create more yardage.
The Panthers’ rush defense is 20th in the NFL, though. They’ve given up three runs of 10-plus yards in each of the past four games.
If the Panthers want to get Rodgers off the field quickly, the first step is making the Packers one-dimensional by eliminating the running game.
Carolina’s protection vs. Green Bay’s pass rush
Panthers coach Ron Rivera was hesitant to call linebacker Clay Matthews a “see ball, get ball” type of player, but that’s what the statistics say he is.
Matthews is a ferocious defender who flies to the ball. Last year he had 11 sacks, and this year he already has 4 1/2.
The Packers are tied for fourth in the NFL with 23 sacks. On the other hand, Carolina’s offensive line has been better than it has in at least two seasons as the group has finally found cohesion.
Pro Football Focus recently ranked Carolina as the fourth-best offensive line in the league. Trai Turner just gave up his first sack of the season last week, and left tackle Michael Oher played one of his best games of the season.
Panthers All-Pro center Ryan Kalil (ankle) insisted Friday he’ll start and play the whole way. Fernando Velasco held up well as Kalil’s backup, but there’s no replacing Kalil, who has been one of the best centers in the league this season.
You could see more Jonathan Stewart and/or Mike Tolbert picking up blitzes in the backfield for Cam Newton.
But the Packers will have to be smart on how they attack Newton in the pass rush. McCarthy is keenly aware of how Newton can hurt his team if not smartly pursued.
“I think he’s definitely one of the better players in the league,” McCarthy said. “I think anytime a player, more so at the quarterback position, demands the preparation and attention from the opponent it speaks volume and I can tell you clearly we’re studying Cam Newton and preparing for all the different things that he does.”
Carolina tight end Greg Olsen vs. Green Bay nickel back Micah Hyde
For some reason, teams continue to leave Olsen in single coverage. Well on his way to his second-straight Pro Bowl nod, Olsen could go up against Micah Hyde, and that would be good news for the Panthers.
Hyde struggled to cover Antonio Gates in Green Bay’s game against San Diego, in which Philip Rivers passed for more than 500 yards. Against Denver’s tight ends, Hyde was constantly exposed by Owen Daniels and Virgil Green.
Teams have been able to limit Olsen by rolling coverage to his side, but offensive coordinator Mike Shula can beat that by establishing a sound run game early on and then beating the Green Bay defense with play action.
If the Packers line up Hyde against Olsen, watch out.