The playoff-bound Houston Texans will face off against the Carolina Panthers, who are forced to play the spoiler role as the season winds down. The Texans are striving for a playoff bye at 10-3, and they will host the Carolina Panthers in Houston, Texas today at 1:00 PM eastern time. The Panthers are 4-9 and are looking to carry some momentum into the 2012 season with a win here. An upset against the Texans would be huge for a team that could easily be closer to .500 right now. In fact, their expected record is 6-7 when looking at point differential, so a lot of bad luck has hurt this club.
The Panthers secondary is nicked up, as Captain Munnerlyn and Charles Godfrey are listed as questionable; star corner Chris Gamble is probable as well. Jordan Gross is also questionable, and Greg Olsen and Ryan Kalil are among the handful of players who are listed as probable heading into today’s game. Kalil and Olsen are two of the team’s most important offensive players, and the secondary and offensive line will not be at full strength.
Thankfully, the Texans receiving corps isn’t at 100%, and their situation is more dire. Andre Johnson won’t play, which means that the Panthers won’t have to deal with the Texans best player; this is a huge relief considering the team has two players in the secondary listed as questionable. Kevin Walter doesn’t appear to be at full strength either, although I doubt he misses this game. Solid guard Mike Brisiel will also be out for the Texans, and nose tackle Shaun Cody is another key player listed as questionable.
Texans Offense vs. Panthers Defense
It all starts up front for the Houston Texans, as they have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Center Chris Myers has undoubtedly been the best center in the league in 2011, and the always solid Myers has really broken out in a huge way. Myers is a punishing run blocker who is also excellent in pass pro, and that’s a problem for the Panthers. Even if Brisiel doesn’t play, the Texans still have a very strong interior; star left guard Wade Smith is really starting to pick up the pace and has been on fire the past couple of weeks after a slump to start the season. Rookie defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua weren’t anything special, but the backups are much worse. I think Andre Neblett can hang in there, but I don’t have high hopes for anyone else in the rotation.
The Panthers have one of the deepest and most talented group of linebackers in the NFL, and I don’t blame their struggles against the run on these guys. It is true that Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are two of the best LBs in the league, MLB Dan Connor is an underrated run-stuffer, while James Anderson is one of the best playmakers at the position around. I blame their poor run defense against underwhelming play in the interior defensive line, and I expect Arian Foster and Brandon Tate to have strong games against Carolina. However, I think people are too quick to pencil in 100-yard rushing days for opposing running backs who play against the Panthers, because the team did hold down Michael Turner last week in a spirited effort.
Even though T.J. Yates is listed as probable, don’t expect Jake Delhomme to face off against his former team. That would be nice in more ways than one, but Yates will certainly be able to play. The Texans passing game vs. the Panthers pass defense is an intriguing matchup to examine on paper, because both teams have injuries that will affect them in this one.
With Andre Johnson out, the Texans are left with tight end Owen Daniels and receivers Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones. Daniels is one of the NFL’s better tight ends, but Walter is a guy who plays much better with Johnson in the lineup. The opposite can be said about Jones, but he is a below-average receiver when all is said and done.
Captain Munnerlyn is usually a player who I give praise to and herald him as one of the more underrated corners in the game, but his play has taken a surprising turn for the worst this season. After a promising 2010 campaign and a solid start to the season, Munnerlyn has been poor during the last handful of weeks. I don’t know if this has to do with him not being healthy, but it might also have to do with Chris Gamble. Although Gamble hasn’t completely shut down receivers at the same rate as he was in the first few weeks of the season, he has still played very well in his first season without John Fox. Before 2011, many people saw him as a player on the decline; but he has erased all doubts thus far. Teams are starting to throw at him less, and they are beginning to pick on Munnerlyn more often.
Panthers Offense vs. Texans Defense
One of the best matchups of the week will involve one of the best wide receivers in the NFL going head-to-head against one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Now that he finally has a quality passer, Steve Smith has been on a torrid pace this season. The big-play receiver will matchup against one of the best free agent signings of the year; Jonathan Joseph. The former Bengal has been much better than fellow former free agent Nnamdi Asomugha this season, and Joseph was also considerably cheaper. The Texans secondary has taken a complete 180, and this is due to the signings of Joseph and star coverage safety Danieal Manning.
Brandon LaFell was a guy I liked coming out of college, and I still believe that he will one day be a quality No. 2 receiver. Last year, Kareem Jackson was a laughingstock as a rookie and couldn’t cover anybody. This year, he is much improved and is now about an average corner who is continuing to improve. Safety Glover Quin has reaped the rewards from his conversion from cornerback, as he is a decent safety after being a poor CB last season.
The Houston Texans are one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league, and that won’t bode well for the Panthers offensive line and passing game. The team does have a solid line overall, but that could change if Jordan Gross doesn’t play. Cam Newton will need to be at his scrambling best and make good, quick decisions in the pocket if he wants to beat this defense. Guys like Manning and Joseph will make him pay in the secondary if he lets the pass rush get to his head, and this is a game that will be a huge test for the rookie quarterback. If he passes, then he just made the ROY a toss-up between him and linebacker Von Miller.
In the end, I’m going to take the Texans in this one. They have the better defense, and I really love their pass rush and solid secondary. But mainly, their running game will dictate things and should give the Texans the win. The Panthers will hold it close, but ultimately, the Texans are the better team.
Texans 24 Panthers 17
Tags: Andre Johnson Andre Neblett Arian Foster Brandon LaFell Brandon Tate Cam Newton Captain Munnerlyn Charles Godfrey Chris Gamble Chris Myers Dan Connor Danieal Manning Glover Quin Houston Texans Jacoby Jones Jake Delhomme James Anderson Jon Beason Jonathan Joseph Jordan Gross Kareem Jackson Kevin Walter Mike Brisiel Owen Daniels Ryan Kalil Shaun Cody Sione Fua Steve Smith T.J. Yates Terrell McClain Thomas Davis Wade Smith