Jets-Panthers Preview

The Carolina Panthers already paid a price for getting ahead of

themselves.

Doing it again could severely dent their chances at an NFC South

title.

The Panthers look to get back on track by continuing their

success at home by beating the New York Jets and severely damaging

their slim playoff hopes.

Carolina (9-4) had its eight-game winning streak halted with a

31-13 loss at New Orleans last week, falling a game behind the

Saints in the division race.

The Panthers learned what could be a valuable lesson as they try

to eventually end a four-year playoff drought.

“I feel like we did get a little ahead of ourselves as far as

feeling good,” defensive end Greg Hardy said. “It happens to the

best of us. When you get something that you really deserve it gives

you a great feeling and you get kind of comfortable in a sense –

not really complacent or content, but kind of comfortable.

“I feel like that is where we were for a second and we learned

our lesson. We got our hand burned.”

Overlooking the Jets (6-7) could prove even more costly since

Carolina hosts the Saints next week before concluding the regular

season at last-place Atlanta. New Orleans ends 2013 at home versus

Tampa Bay, but visits St. Louis this week.

The Panthers could clinch a playoff spot Sunday, combining a win

with losses by San Francisco and Arizona, while Dallas or

Philadelphia fail to win.

“There is a lot on the line this week,” coach Ron Rivera

said.

The Jets certainly share that sentiment as they chase Baltimore

and try to fend off a host of other teams for the final wild-card

spot in the AFC playoff race. They’re one game behind the Ravens,

but lost to them in Week 12.

“Every game’s a playoff game for us, man,” rookie defensive

lineman Sheldon Richardson said. “That’s how we have to look at

it.”

A return home, where the Panthers have won five straight, could

also benefit Cam Newton, who completed 22 of 34 passes for 160

yards and one touchdown while being sacked five times against the

Saints.

Newton has a 100.2 passer rating while completing 65.2 percent

of his passes for 1,148 yards and 10 touchdowns with five

interceptions during the five-game winning streak in Charlotte.

He’s also been sacked just seven times, while rushing for 223 yards

with three TDs on 34 carries.

Newton may be key to keeping that run going since the Jets

defense ranks 24th against the pass, surrendering an average of

254.9 yards. The unit – second in the league in yielding 82.6

rushing yards per game – may also be without cornerback Antonio

Cromartie, who is trying to recover from a concussion.

“It’s a great opportunity to go out and really prove to

ourselves who we are,” Newton said.

The Panthers defense is looking to rebound from one of its worst

performances of the season, giving up a season-high 304 passing

yards and 373 overall. They also gave up four passing touchdowns to

New Orleans after yielding just nine over the first 12 games.

Still, Carolina allows a league-low 14.5 points per game, and

ranks second overall while allowing 296.2 yards.

The Jets, meanwhile, are 31st in the league with just 17.4

points per game, which drops to 13.2 on the road. – where they’re

1-5.

Despite the production, they’re feeling confident following last

week’s 37-27 win over Oakland.

“The spirits are higher, but for me it’s the same work week,”

rookie quarterback Geno Smith said.

Smith may be feeling good after completing 16 of 25 passes for

219 yards with one touchdown and one pick against the Raiders while

running for another score and gaining 50 yards on five carries. It

was a vast improvement over the previous five games, when he

completed 47.1 percent of his passes with eight INTs and no

touchdown passes.

“Throughout the game, I was just playing freely,” Smith said.

“It goes back to not thinking about all my past mistakes. I think I

kind of got into this zone where I just tried to be way too perfect

and that’s almost impossible to do at any level, especially as a

rookie. There were times where I was so caught up in running the

play and executing it to perfection that I didn’t allow my natural

ability to take over at times.”

Coach Rex Ryan feels Smith’s rushing ability could be important

against Carolina’s defense.

“Anytime you talk about putting a defense on their heels, when

you’re throwing it and now all of a sudden you take off with it, it

presents a lot to a defense,” Ryan said. “Obviously, with this kid

we’re getting ready to play, Cam Newton is a big, fast kid back

there. He’s got a great arm too.

“That’s going to present problems.”

Containing Newton to the pocket may be a priority after the Jets

allowed a season-worst 150 yards rushing last week.

“Normally, a big strength of ours is our gap integrity in the

run,” Ryan said. “Obviously, we had a couple of issues in that, so

clearly moving forward that has to be a strength, not a

weakness.”