NFL Preview – Carolina (3-2) at Cincinnati (3-1) (ET)

By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) – They’re not all the way there yet.

But the Carolina Panthers have begun showing signs of being the team they
frequently appeared to be on the way to a 12-4 finish in the 2013 season.

Carolina opened up its encore season with consecutive victories over Tampa Bay
and Detroit, but had been bombarded to the tune of 908 total yards in blowout
losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore – and had managed just five sacks in three
games after leading the league with 60 a year ago.

Chaos was avoided thanks to a 31-24 defeat of Chicago last weekend, a game in
which the visiting Bears were held to 347 total yards and quarterback Jay
Cutler was taken down four times. Charles Johnson broke through for his first
sack of the season after racking up 11 last season alongside Greg Hardy, who’s
still out of commission until a pending domestic violence case involving him
is wrapped up.

Johnson added a fumble recovery and a pass deflection as part of a hell-bent-
for-leather siege on Cutler that was heartily welcomed by aggression-starved
coach Ron Rivera.

“It was great to see the pass rush get the chance to cut loose,” Rivera said.
“When you get yourself into the position when you have a lead, you get them
into the second- and third-and-longs, and you can cut it loose and get after
the quarterback.”

The uprising was timely, because the offense isn’t nearly so settled.

Running back DeAngelo Williams will miss his fourth game of the season thanks
to an ankle injury, while backfield mate Jonathan Stewart is deemed
questionable with a knee problem and did not practice with the team on
Wednesday.

The Panthers are last in the NFC with a weekly ground average of 74.8 yards,
and they may lean more toward an up-tempo version of Cam Newton this week
after the fourth-year pro completed eight of 11 passes for 124 yards and a
touchdown in two no-huddle possessions against Chicago.

He completed fewer than half his throws – 11-of-24 – for 131 yards in
traditional schemes.

“He’s pretty good at it,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “It’s been good for us
this year. Sometimes certain situations dictate that you can’t stay in it, but
when we’ve done it we’ve been pretty successful. When we need a spark we can
go to it. And it seems like it does spark us.”

Olson caught a pair of scoring passes last week and is on a pace that’ll
establish career-highs in catches, yards and touchdowns.

“He’s so consistent,” Newton said. “Greg didn’t do anything that he hasn’t
been doing for us all season.”

Cincinnati was seared by a pair of tight ends in a deflating 26-point loss at
New England on Sunday night, falling hard from the ranks of the unbeaten while
surrendering 11 catches for 185 yards and a pair of TDs to the combination of
Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright.

The Bengals were down 14 in the second quarter and never had a chance to
unleash a run game that had averaged 121.7 yards on 34 carries during the
previous three victories. Instead, they ran just 18 times and gained 79 yards
while suffering their most lopsided loss in two years.

On defense, Cincinnati entered the game having held opponents to the fewest
points in the league (33) and had limited their two most recent foes – Atlanta
and Tennessee – to an average of 317.5 total yards.

The Patriots went for 505 and scored 43 points.

“You’ve been the one hitting in the mouth, and now you’ve been hit,” Bengals
coach Marvin Lewis said. “It’s time to respond.”

The good news is that four of Cincinnati’s next five games will take place at
Paul Brown Stadium, where it’s won 11 in a row to equal New England for the
longest active streak. Also on the plus side is the anticipated return of
linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who led the team in tackles last season but had
missed the last two games with a concussion before returning to full practice
mode on Wednesday.

A potential down side: Wide receiver A.J. Green left that same practice after
aggravating a right toe injury that initially occurred in the season opener
against Baltimore. He had five catches for 81 yards and a score against the
Patriots, but is suddenly up in the air for Sunday.

“We had a lot of good things in the football game (against New England),”
Lewis said. “There were a lot of positive plays, but not enough of them strung
together to make a big enough difference, particularly at the key times.
There’s things to learn from and things to build upon in a lot of ways, but
more importantly a lot of things to correct, and make sure that we all just
stay calm and play through the moment.”

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Dare to the Air

With Williams unavailable and Stewart likely limited, the Bengals will have
the luxury of playing the Panthers with the expectation that footballs will be
flying. And while that may not be good news considering Cincinnati has allowed
more pass yards than 18 teams, it’s positive considering the Bengals are
second stingiest in the league when it comes to passing TDs and also second in
interceptions.

Keep it Tight

As mentioned earlier, the Bengals were raked over the coals – over and over
again – by the Patriots’ tight end tandem of Gronkowski and Wright. And while
Olson doesn’t have the acumen of two men and Newton is still no Tom Brady, it
is a happy coincidence that the Carolina QB’s most prolific target just
happens to play the same position. If nothing else, it’ll cause Lewis at least
a matchup headache or two.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

That sound you heard late Sunday night – while champagne corks were being
popped a group of 70-somethings in South Florida – was the mass exodus from
what had been a burgeoning Bengals bandwagon.

It’s a point Lewis has made sure to drive home this week, while essentially
daring his players to show they’ve got more mettle than the Patriots revealed.
At home, they make a statement.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 24, Panthers 20