NFL Preview - Buffalo (2-4) at Carolina (2-3)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Fans of the Carolina Panthers who have been clamoring for a quarterback change could get a long look at what a backup signal-caller looks like on Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
Though it won't be the homestanding Panthers who could be forced to make a change behind center, but the visiting Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo got a lesson in bad news/good news last Sunday, when starting quarterback Trent Edwards was lost for the game due to a second-quarter concussion, but the Bills managed a much-needed 16-13 overtime win at the Jets.
Edwards' replacement, Ryan Fitzpatrick, completed just 10-of-25 passes for 116 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the win. Fitzpatrick did hit on a 37-yard touchdown pass to Lee Evans to tie the game at 13-13 in the third quarter, but offensive stars like Marshawn Lynch (19 carries, 61 yards) and Terrell Owens (3 receptions, 13 yards) failed to register much of an impact with a new quarterback in the lineup.
If Edwards is not ready for the Panthers, Fitzpatrick would get his first start in a Buffalo uniform. Fitzpatrick, the Harvard product who was acquired by the team as a free agent this past offseason, went 4-7-1 in 12 starts with the Bengals last season, and also started three games as a St. Louis Ram (0-3) in his rookie campaign of 2005.
The former seventh-round choice has career totals of 13 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, 388 rushing yards, and four rushing touchdowns during his time as a pro.
In order to notch another win, Buffalo would be well-advised to get a similar effort from its pass defense as it did a week ago. The Bills intercepted Jets rookie Mark Sanchez five times in the game, and Buffalo notched its first six- pick effort (including an interception off of Jets punter Steve Weatherford) in more than 40 years.
The showing helped overshadow a poor effort by the Bills run defense, which allowed 318 ground yards to New York and now ranks last in the league in rushing defense (181.8 yards per game), yards allowed per carry (5.3), and rushes of 20 yards or longer (10).
Like Buffalo, Carolina comes off a victory that didn't exactly signal that the team had turned the corner.
The Panthers outlasted the winless Buccaneers, 28-21, last Sunday, with running backs DeAngelo Williams (30 carries, 152 yards, 2 TD) and Jonathan Stewart (17 carries, 110 yards, 1 TD) leading the ground assault that fueled the victory.
But quarterback Jake Delhomme (9-of-17, 65 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) and the passing attack continued to struggle, with a Delhomme pick-six helping Tampa to tie the game in the fourth quarter and the Panthers' No. 1 receiver complaining loudly about his role in the game's aftermath.
Steve Smith, who was held to one catch for four yards on the day, was quoted as saying, "I'm no longer an asset to this team...that's all there is to say," and did not back off those statements when questioned about them later in the week.
The Panthers are 29th in NFL passing offense (158.8 yards per game) and last in the league in turnover margin (-10) as Week 7 begins.
Buffalo has a 3-1 lead in its all-time series with Carolina, but was a 13-9 home loser when the teams last met, during the 2005 season. The Bills downed the Panthers at home in 1995 and 2001 and in Charlotte during the 1998 season. The Bills defeated the Panthers, 30-14, in their only previous trip to the Carolinas.
Carolina head coach John Fox is 1-0 in his career against the Bills, and is also 1-0 head-to-head against Buffalo's Dick Jauron, thanks to a win over Jauron's Bears in 2002. Jauron is 0-1 against the Panthers in his career.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Fitzpatrick will likely take command of an offense that ranks 25th in the league in yards (291.2 yards per game), and has found little consistency in either the passing game (25th, 169.5 yards per game) or running game (12th, 121.7 yards per game). While the latter figure is nothing of which to be ashamed, the Bills enter Week 7 as one of just three NFL teams without a rushing touchdown on the year (Rams, Chiefs). Lynch (134 rushing yards, 13 receptions) and Fred Jackson (415 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 1 TD) have been splitting carries of late, and combined for 113 yards on 34 total totes (3.3 per rush) last week, with no gains of longer than 12 yards. When Fitzpatrick throws it, his main targets will be Evans (16 receptions, 2 TD) and Owens (15 receptions, 1 TD), neither of whom has made a terrific impact this year. The biggest problem for the Buffalo attack has been a young and consistently banged-up offensive line that has allowed 19 sacks thus far on the year. Right tackle Jonathan Scott (ankle) is expected to miss this week's game, meaning ex- Packer Jamon Meredith will likely make a second straight start in his place.
Whoever plays QB for Buffalo will be working against a Carolina defense that ranks No. 2 in the NFL against the pass (156.8 yards per game), though that number is somewhat skewed by the fact that the Panthers have faced an NFL-low 129 pass attempts thus far. Still, the pass rush has indisputably picked up the pace in recent weeks, with end Julius Peppers (21 tackles, 5 sacks) shaking off a slow start to total four sacks in his past two outings. Fellow pass rusher Charles Johnson (8 tackles) also notched a pair of sacks last Sunday. The team has made fewer big plays on the back end, where cornerback Richard Marshall (20 tackles) has the secondary's lone INT, that coming back in Week 2. The Panthers are 29th in the NFL against the run (149.2 yards per game) and are surrendering a bloated five yards per carry (second-worst in the league to only the Bills), but took a step towards correcting that problem by trading for Chiefs defensive tackle Tank Tyler earlier this week. Tyler, a N.C. State product and native Carolinian, started 19 games for Kansas City over the past three seasons and has 22 tackles on the year. Linebackers Thomas Davis (48 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Jon Beason (34 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) are 1-2 on Carolina in stops.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Given Smith's comments in the wake of the Buccaneers win, the Panthers and Delhomme (847 passing yards, 4 TD, 10 INT) figure to work hard to get the ball in the hands of the perennial Pro Bowler on Sunday. Smith (21 receptions) has faced regular double-teams this season, has just one 100-yard game to his credit, and has yet to find the end zone in 2009. Carolina's leading pass- catcher entering Week 7 is not Smith but No. 2 receiver Muhsin Muhammad (22 receptions), who had team-highs with just three receptions and 27 yards against Tampa Bay. Tight end Jeff King (9 receptions, 2 TD) caught Delhomme's lone touchdown pass of the day, and all four of the QB's scoring strikes have gone to tight ends this year. But whatever happens with the passing game, Carolina will remain a run-first team looking to exploit the skills of running backs Williams (372 rushing yards, 4 TD, 14 receptions) and Stewart (248 rushing yards, 2 TD). The backs both went over 100 yards in last week's 267-yard ground assault against the Buccaneers, the second straight time Williams and Stewart each went over 100 yards against the Bucs. Carolina is eighth in NFL rushing offense (131.2 yards per game) as Week 7 begins.
Delhomme and Smith will have a chance to do some damage down the field this week against a Buffalo secondary that is not at 100 percent. Safeties Donte Whitner (25 tackles, 1 INT) and Bryan Scott (27 tackles, 1 INT) are both questionable due to ankle injuries heading into the contest, and No. 1 cornerback Terrence McGee (26 tackles) did not practice on Wednesday due to a knee problem. Reserve safeties Jairus Byrd (25 tackles, 3 INT), George Wilson (29 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), and John Wendling (11 tackles, 1 INT), along with cornerback Reggie Corner (19 tackles, 1 INT), will likely have to serve in key roles after combining for five of Buffalo's six interceptions last week. The pass rush is led by ends Aaron Schobel (24 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT), Ryan Denney (11 tackles, 2 sacks), and Chris Kelsay (27 tackles, 2 sacks), who have combined for seven of the Bills' 14 sacks on the year. Up the middle, the league's worst statistical run-stopping team must bounce back from the Jets debacle, and will likely have to do so without defensive tackle Kyle Williams (shoulder). Marcus Stroud (30 tackles, 2 sacks) and linebackers Paul Posluzsny (15 tackles, 1 INT) and Keith Ellison (61 tackles) will have to be active against the Panthers backs.
This is not a contest in which you'll find a wide array of fantasy options, particularly in either passing game, though Steve Smith could be a good choice one week after his much-publicized tantrum. Otherwise, the most viable starters are Panthers running backs Williams and Stewart, who will look to torture a soft Bills run defense. At the same time, the Buffalo defense would seem to merit a look given Delhomme's propensity for turnovers coupled with Buffalo's six-pick effort of a week ago. The Panthers defense could also be a better play than usual given the general struggles of the Bills attack and the shaky Fitzpatrick's possible presence in the lineup.
Though the Panthers have not exactly made things look easy in narrow wins over the struggling Redskins and Buccaneers, the fact that team is finding a way to get into the left column can only inspire confidence in John Fox's team going forward. This is still a fairly talented team, and it would seem that Carolina has been building toward its first complete victory of the season. The battered Bills should represent an obliging opponent. Buffalo's preoccupation with the Carolina running game should help open some things up for Delhomme and the Panthers aerial attack, and look for some big plays there to help set the tone for what should be a decisive Carolina victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 31, Bills 9
10/22 11:41:06 ET