Given that they hardly ever play each other, the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals are not terribly familiar with one another’s work until they have to be.
On Sunday, they have to be. And they will realize how similar they are.
Carolina (3-2) and Cincinnati (3-1) both lead their respective divisions this season. They are each led by high-profile young quarterbacks from the 2011 draft who have each won a lot – but who have never won a game in the postseason.
They each won their division in 2013 – Carolina winning 12 games and Cincinnati 11 – but then laid a quick egg in a home playoff game. They are mid-sized market teams named for big cats. Both Charlotte and Cincinnati even like to call themselves the “Queen City.”
Both teams have also sustained embarrassing losses this season, with Cincinnati’s being the more recent. The Bengals were the last undefeated team in the NFL before getting pummeled 43-17 by New England a week ago.
Coach Marvin Lewis came out of that one telling his team: “Don’t hang your heads; set your jaws.” It sounds like something Panthers coach Ron Rivera would say.
The Panthers had set their jaws the week before. After losing badly to Pittsburgh and Baltimore – two teams Cincinnati beat out by three games each to win the AFC North in 2013 – Carolina came back from a 21-7 deficit to edge Chicago.
There are plenty of differences, too. Cincinnati has made the playoffs each of the past three seasons. Carolina has never had two winning seasons in a row, much less two straight playoff seasons.
But Andy Dalton, who has been very good most of the time in the regular season, has gone 0-3 in the playoffs. Cam Newton is 0-1 and doesn’t have the security yet of the long-term deal that the Bengals have already bestowed upon Dalton.
What I wonder – and what I believe will decide the game Sunday – is which Panthers defense shows up. The one that played in the second half against Chicago? Or the one that played the prior two games?
Carolina’s red-zone defense has been awful this season. Opponents have gotten inside the Panthers’ 20 on 13 occasions, and 10 times they have scored touchdowns. That 76.9 touchdown percentage allowed ranks as the worst in the league. Much of the damage was done in those two games vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh, when the Panthers were outscored by a combined margin of 75-29 and couldn’t stop anybody.
But against Chicago, the Panthers caused turnovers on the Bears’ last three possessions. At least temporarily, they found themselves.
“I don’t think we were ever lost,” defensive end Charles Johnson said after that game. “We were just misplaced.”
Maybe. Or maybe this game will showcase the Panthers’ elevator tendencies – they keep going down when you think they are going up, and vice versa.
Cincinnati, in many respects, is the Panthers’ mirror image. And on Sunday, somebody is going to crack.