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NFL Preview - Carolina (2-8) at Indianapolis (0-10)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When the Carolina Panthers made Cam Newton the first pick of the 2011 NFL Draft last April, not many would've thought the Indianapolis Colts would get the next crack at No. 1.
But that's precisely the way it's worked out in America's heartland, where the injury absence of another former top overall choice, Peyton Manning, has the Colts presently sitting two games ahead of the pack for the right to select first in next April's draft.
The frenzy for that top pick speaks volumes about the long-term job security of post-Manning incumbent Curtis Painter, who'll make his eighth consecutive start this Sunday when Indianapolis hosts Newton and the Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Having taken a week off since a 17-3 loss to visiting Jacksonville on Nov. 13, the Colts hope to sidestep their first 0-11 start since 1986, while the Panthers seek to end a 12-game road skid.
The Colts are 13-9 all-time after a bye week.
Painter has been the man in Indianapolis since free-agent pickup Kerry Collins suffered a season-ending concussion on Sept. 25. He's completed 55.2 percent of his passes with five touchdowns -- but none since October -- with seven interceptions.
The Colts have just 398 total yards and 10 points in their last two games.
"I think everybody's a little disappointed with the season," Painter said. "I think, looking at myself, I'm just disappointed in the last couple of games and kind of how I've performed. I know that I need to continue to improve and get better.
"I think we're all a little disappointed, but we'll keep fighting for sure."
Though Painter was relieved by Dan Orlovsky in the last two pre-bye games, head coach Jim Caldwell nonetheless gave Painter a vote of confidence as his starter as the franchise counts down the days to its shot at Stanford quarterback and presumed draft-day savior Andrew Luck.
"The bottom line is that if the right person is there, and it has to be the right person, then now is the time to make that choice," Colts general manager Bill Polian said of the prospects of possibly being in position to take Luck.
The Panthers were in similarly dire straits in their last season before Newton's arrival, going 2-14 and ranking last in the league with an average of 258.4 total yards per game. They're just 2-8 through 10 games this year, but have instead been suffering on defense, having allowed 79 points over the last two weeks.
They gave up 35 points in the second half of last week's 49-35 loss to Detroit.
"You play the second half the way we did, you're going to get beat," head coach Ron Rivera said.
Carolina's defensive pressure on Painter could be impacted if end Charles Johnson is unable to play with a shoulder injury. He has seven of the team's 19 sacks. Indianapolis, meanwhile, is tied with Tampa Bay for the second-fewest sacks in the league with 15.
Newton ran for two scores against the Lions and has a rookie quarterback-record nine rushing touchdowns. The league mark of 12 by a signal-caller was set by New England's Steve Grogan in 1976.
Sunday's matchup marks the fifth all-time meeting between the Panthers and Colts, with Carolina winning the first three games in the series prior to being dealt a 31-7 home loss by Indianapolis in 2007. The Panthers are 2-0 against the Colts in Indianapolis in their history, following up a 27-19 victory at the RCA Dome in 1999 with a 23-20 overtime triumph there in 2003.
Both Rivera and Caldwell will be facing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
In four road starts, Newton has passed for 1,313 yards (328.3 per game) with four touchdowns while rushing for 137 yards and six touchdowns. He ranks sixth in the NFL with 2,885 passing yards and is third in the league with nine rushing touchdowns. Running back DeAngelo Williams has 16 career 100-yard rush games and when he has 18 or more carries, the Panthers are 15-3. When running back Jonathan Stewart has 15-plus attempts, meanwhile, the team is 14-3. Wide receiver Steve Smith leads the NFC with 992 receiving yards and in his past four games on the road, has 26 catches for 466 yards (116.5 per game) and three touchdowns. In his only game at Indianapolis in 2003, Smith had six catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. Rookie wide receiver/kick returner Kealoha Pilares had a 101-yard return for a touchdown last week, the longest in team history. Tight end Jeremy Shockey aims for a fourth game in a row against Indianapolis, including the postseason, with 100-plus receiving yards or a touchdown catch, and is expected to play after missing the Detroit game with a rib injury.
Colts end Dwight Freeney needs 1 1/2 sacks to become the 26th player with 100 in his career since the stat became official in 1982, while fellow end Robert Mathis needs 1 1/2 sacks to reach 80 for his career. Cornerback Jerraud Powers aims for a third consecutive game with an interception, while second-season middle linebacker Pat Angerer has a team-high 105 tackles and a forced fumble.
Statistically speaking, Carolina is 18th in scoring offense (22.5 ppg), fifth in total yards (400.9 ypg), ninth in passing (272.2 ypg) and seventh in rushing (128.7 ypg). Defensively, the Colts are dead last in points allowed (30.0 ppg), 29th in total yards allowed (390.6 ypg), 22nd against the pass (245.0 ypg) and 31st against the run (145.6 ypg).
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Painter had a career-high 281 passing yards against an NFC South opponent (Tampa Bay) in October and tied a career-best with two touchdown passes in that game. Running back Joseph Addai had 100 rushing yards with three touchdowns (2 rushing, 1 receiving) in his only game against the Panthers, but is questionable with a lingering hamstring injury. Rookie running back Delone Carter, a fourth-round selection in this past draft, ranks second in the AFC among rookies with 327 rushing yards, trailing only Miami's Daniel Thomas (406). Wide receiver Reggie Wayne needs eight catches to have at least 50 receptions for a ninth consecutive season. In two career games against Carolina, Wayne had 11 receptions for 239 yards (21.7-yard average) with two touchdowns. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon (621 receiving yards) needs 164 receiving yards to surpass his career-best of 784 in 2010. Tight end Jacob Tamme had season-bests in catches (6) and receiving yards (75) in Indianapolis' Week 9 loss to Jacksonville.
For the Carolina defense, Johnson has 15 sacks in his past 17 games and rookie end Thomas Keiser had two sacks last week, the first two of his career. Linebacker James Anderson had an interception in the Week 11 loss, while strong safety Charles Godfrey has 56 tackles and two interceptions on the season.
By the numbers, the Colts are 30th in scoring (13.1 ppg), 31st in total yards (275.7 ypg), 30th in passing (177.3 ypg) and 25th in rushing (98.4 ypg). On defense, the Panthers are second-to-last in points allowed (28.6 ppg), 27th in total yards (374.8 ypg), 17th against the pass (234.1 ypg) and 30th against the run (140.7 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Newton has been the real deal throughout his rookie season and could be prolific against an opponent who's had difficult times pressuring quarterbacks and keeping teams off the scoreboard. The rookie sensation did throw four interceptions last week, however, and will need to cut down on his mistakes to give the Panthers their best chance.
The Panthers have been especially successful in games where Williams has gotten a lot of carries, which looks possible against a team ranked second-to-last in the league against the run.
Generating offense on the ground could be an approach for the Colts as well, with Addai (if healthy) and Carter facing a Carolina defensive unit that's just 30th in the league against the run. With the way Painter has struggled, that might be the best philosophy to take as well.
Ten games into the post-Manning apocalypse, the Colts have reached the inglorious homestretch in the "Suck for Luck" sweepstakes. And while they're not markedly inferior to the Panthers across the board, there's little doubt that the best active player on either team is Newton. That fact should be the tie-breaker in a close game where each side accentuates the other's weaknesses.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 21, Colts 17
11/25 13:34:08 ET