By Sam McPherson

The Los Angeles Rams suddenly have a tougher-looking task in Week 9 than previously thought, as the defending NFC champions come to town on Sunday. The Carolina Panthers are only 2-5, but after they dismantled the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, it looks as though their 2015 roar might have been restored.

That isn’t good news for the Rams, who desperately need to win the next four games to have a decent shot at a winning season for the first time since 2003. If the Panthers now resemble anything close to the 15-1 juggernaut that ripped through the conference playoffs last January, Los Angeles is in for a serious fight in Week 9.

Panthers Season Record: 2-5

Carolina jumped out to a 30-7 lead in the second half over Arizona before putting it on cruise control, and that’s quite possibly the first time this season the Panthers have played at the level they were expected to this year. Other than a 19-point thrashing of the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2, Carolina has lost its other five games. Three of those losses came by a combined seven points, however.

Despite the poor overall record, the Panthers have only been outscored by five points this season, and they may have turned the corner. This is bad timing for the Rams, who would have rather faced Carolina a few weeks ago when the Panthers were struggling and without their star quarterback. 

Panthers On Offense

That star QB is 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player Cam Newton, and even though his overall play this year hasn’t been up to MVP expectations, he looked pretty solid last weekend against the Cardinals. The Carolina offense has scored the fourth-most points in the NFL this season, too, averaging 27.3 points each time out. But it’s been hit or miss with the Panthers, as three times they’ve been held to 20 points or less in a game.

In truth, Carolina is at its best when the running game is working, as that opens up big plays for Newton’s legs and his right arm. The Panthers are fifth in the NFL when it comes to running the ball right now, posting 123.9 yards per game. Whether it’s Jonathan Stewart, Cameron Artis-Payne or Fozzy Whittaker, the Carolina offense has three running backs capable of carrying a huge load.

Panthers On Defense

This is the biggest difference between last year’s Super Bowl entrant and this year’s Carolina squad. Without lockdown cornerback Josh Norman, the Panthers have sagged on defense, allowing 28 points per game. Last season, they allowed just 19.3 points to each opponent.

The run defense remains stout, allowing just 80.1 yards per game rushing (third-best figure in the league), but without Norman to anchor the secondary, the Carolina defense is allowing 286.9 yards a game through the air. That’s the third-worst mark in the NFL right now, and the Rams will have to take advantage of that weakness if they want to win this game.

Panthers Players To Watch

The Los Angeles defense will have to contain Newton’s running, and then it will have to cover tight end Greg Olsen. While the Panthers have some potent wide receivers, they are inconsistent, and Newton always looks for Olsen first in this offensive scheme. The veteran tight end leads the Carolina squad with 40 receptions and 621 yards receiving in 2016.

Linebacker stud Luke Kuechly leads the Panthers defense with 74 tackles already, and that’s almost twice as many stops as the next player on the team (LB Thomas Davis has only 38 tackles). Basically, Kuechly is everywhere on every play. The Rams will have to make sure he’s accounted for on every pre-snap read throughout the entire game.

Outlook

This is an interesting game, because the Panthers’ defensive flaws might not hurt them against a poor L.A. passing game. Carolina will stop Rams RB Todd Gurley, because everyone else has so far this season. It will be up to the Los Angeles QB to take advantage of a poor secondary. Case Keenum can play a near-flawless game; he’s done it before, but he will have to do it again to beat the Panthers.

Meanwhile, the Rams defense is getting healthier, and they will need that healthy depth to stop the Carolina offense. This may be a homer pick, but look for Los Angeles to make some big plays late in the game and escape with a three-point win against the Panthers on Sunday at the Coliseum. Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein will be the difference, while Carolina kicker Graham Gano’s challenging season will continue.

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