Kirk Cousins delivered the best game of his career last week. A far greater test lies ahead this week.
After bringing the Washington Redskins closer to the top of the NFC East by dismantling the NFL's worst defense, Cousins now faces one of the league's best in Sunday's road clash with the unbeaten Carolina Panthers.
Washington (4-5) moved within one-half game of the division-leading New York Giants by putting together its best offensive display in 24 years, amassing 514 yards in last week's 47-14 rout of New Orleans. It was the Redskins' most since a 559-yard output against Atlanta in 1991 and their highest point total since a 52-17 win over San Francisco in 2005.
Cousins completed 20 of 25 throws for 324 yards and a career-high four touchdowns for a perfect 158.3 passer rating – the only one in the NFL this season – in a performance that likely increased the impending free agent's market value.
“He's answered the challenge and he's done a good job,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “You know, he's just making good decisions. That's what that position is all about.”
Repeating success has often been a challenge for both Cousins and the Redskins, however, and even more so on the road. Washington hasn't won consecutive games since downing Tampa Bay and Dallas in Weeks 7 and 8 of last season, with that 20-17 overtime decision over the Cowboys is its lone victory in its last 18 as the visitor.
“We've had a bad habit around here of not being able to follow up a victory with another victory,'' Gruden said. ''So it's very important for us to get our frame of mind set that, 'Hey, this is what we can do. We're capable of doing this.'”
Inconsistency hasn't been an issue for a 9-0 Carolina team that's won 13 consecutive regular-season games and scored 27 or more points in seven straight following last week's 27-10 triumph at Tennessee, which maintained the Panthers' two-game advantage over Arizona and Minnesota for the NFC's best record.
The formula for success also has remained constant, with the Panthers leaning on a stingy defense and a strong running game during their franchise-record start.
Carolina has held opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 69.1 passer rating and is tied for the NFL lead with 14 interceptions, supporting a ball-control offense netting 139.7 rushing yards per game on a league-high 303 attempts.
“Our motto is 'keep pounding' and that's what we do,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “We embrace it, regardless of the situation.”
Both of those areas could present problems for Washington. Cousins has produced a pedestrian 66.3 rating and thrown seven interceptions in four 2015 road starts and the defense has permitted a troubling 181.2 rushing yards per game over its last five outings. The Saints averaged 6.3 yards per carry while gaining 158 last week.
Carolina is 36-20-1 when running for 100 or more yards in Cam Newton's starts. The confident quarterback's 366 rushing yards and six touchdowns are tops among the position, though he's been more dangerous with his arm in the past two wins.
Newton completed his first 11 passes and finished 21 of 26 for 217 yards and a touchdown against the Titans, one week after compiling 297 yards and three TD passes in a 37-29 home win over Green Bay. He also ran for a touchdown in both contests and now has 30 career games with both a passing and rushing score, one shy of matching Steve Young's NFL record.
Newton's dual-threat ability has been pivotal in the red zone, where the Panthers have been among the league's most improved teams this season. They've scored touchdowns on 60.0 percent of possessions inside the opposing 20-yard line after finishing 27th overall with a 46.8 percent rate in 2014.
''We're scoring touchdowns instead of field goals,'' offensive coordinator Mike Shula said.
Washington got its ground game working again last week, producing a season-high 213 yards after generating just 172 combined over its previous four games. Rookie Matt Jones had 56 rushing yards and 131 receiving, most of which came on a 78-yard touchdown catch that snapped a 14-all tie in the second quarter.
Tight end Jordan Reed added two touchdown catches and has five over the last three games.
The teams are meeting for the first time since a 21-13 Carolina win at FedEx Field on Nov. 4, 2012. The Redskins have lost three straight in the series as well as their last three visits to Bank of America Stadium.