The Panthers and Chargers meet Sunday with both teams hoping to finish up strong while building momentum for next season. Carolina (4-9) has won two of three and likely needs to run the table if coach Ron Rivera wants to see a third season as head coach. The decision on San Diego (5-8) coach Norv Turner may have already been made. However, the Chargers must consider the future of their ballyhooed but underachieving backfield.
The Panthers won four of their final six games last year providing an off-season full of optimism for Carolina fans. Second year QB Cam Newton struggled at the onset of this season and the Panthers limped to a 1-6 start. But Newton has responded during the last month. He has thrown for eight scores, rushed for three more, and completed nearly 61-percent of his throws in the last four games. While Carolina continues to lose close games, the Panthers are 0-7 this year in games decided by seven points or less, recently it has not been Newton's doing.
At 8-8 the Chargers lost out on a playoff tiebreaker to Tim Tebow and the Broncos last year because of win percentage in common games. No such formula will be needed in 2012. While the Peyton Manning led Broncos are 10-3, San Diego has regressed. In many ways two years of San Diego problems can be summed up by studying the play of QB Phillip Rivers.
In 2010 Rivers was the second best quarterback in the NFL behind only Tom Brady. He led the league in passing yards, threw for 30 touchdowns, and completed 66-percent of his passes. Last year Rivers was third in the league in interceptions but still ranked among the league leaders in passing yards and touchdowns while his percentage of completions dipped to 63-percent. This year has been a mirror image of last season. Rivers has 21 touchdown throws but has been picked off 13 times. He has thrown for nearly 3,200 yards, and completed 64-percent of his passes, but been sacked 37 times. In other words, if the Rivers of 2010 does not rediscover himself, the Chargers have a capable but inconsistent and mistake prone leader.
The same is true for Charger running back Ryan Matthews. Experts loved the potential of the Fresno State product and he showed flashes of brilliance towards the end of his first season in 2010. As a rookie he averaged 4.3 yards per carry and scampered for seven touchdowns playing as a platoon option with Mike Tolbert and Darren Sproles. Last year Matthews was given the starting job, played in 14 games, and rushed for nearly 1,100 yards averaging 4.9 yards a rush with six rushing scores. But like Rivers, Matthews has taken a backwards step. This year he has scored only one time on the ground while averaging 3.8 yards a carry and the last two weeks has taken 34 hand-offs and gained only 91 yards. Just one of 180 rushing tries for Matthews this year have gone for more than 18 yards.
Neither the Panthers nor Chargers are postseason bound but if Carolina can begin finding a way to win close games at least Newton seems to be a building block. Whoever runs San Diego next year will need to make critical and difficult decisions on key positions.