CAROLINA PANTHERS (4-2) AT CHICAGO BEARS (2-4)
SERIES HISTORY: Ninth regular-season meeting. Bears lead series, 5-3. Chicago won the last two games at Soldier Field. Carolina won at home in the last game between the teams, in 2014. The teams played in 2005 in the divisional round of the playoffs, with the Panthers winning 29-21 at Soldier Field when John Fox was their coach.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers have turned up the defensive pressure on quarterbacks at times this season; and, with the Bears using rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky, that's certain to be a priority.
Carolina is equipped to do so with a veteran defensive line that should be well-rested with a couple of extra days off because of a Thursday night game in Week 6. With the secondary still trying to settle in because of injuries, it makes the pass rush that much more important.
Carolina's 4-3 presents Jordan Howard with a better opportunity to gain yardage inside because middle linebacker Luke Kuechly suffered a concussion last week. It will also be an opportunity to throw more to Tarik Cohen than in recent games. With just three linebackers, Cohen might find getting open easier like he did against Atlanta's 4-3. If Kuechly can't play, it would deprive the Panthers of one of their better pass defenders. Underneath routes to tight ends and slot receiver Kendall Wright could also be a way to work against Carolina's zone coverages.
Carolina's offense has struggled moving the ball on the ground, so getting that going is considered crucial. Jonathan Stewart has been bottled up the past two games and Christian McCaffrey, while extremely effective in the passing attack, hasn't found much wiggle room in the rushing attack.
The Chicago defense has to avoid stunts and blitzes by inside linebackers this week with Cam Newton capable of burning them with his legs as much as his arm. If there is a position to blitz with against Carolina, it's a slot defensive back. Bryce Callahan has shown a knack for it, with a sack to his credit. The Bears will need as much zone coverage as possible to keep their eyes on Newton if he does take off downfield.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers C Ryan Kalil vs. Bears NT Eddie Goldman. Kalil has missed about a month with a neck injury but is expected to play. This figures to give the Panthers a big boost, but Goldman will be assigned to disrupt things along the front. If Kalil doesn't demonstrate that he's at full strength, Goldman could be ready to take advantage. In his third year, Goldman is starting to fulfill the promise shown late in his rookie season. Goldman's combination of strength and quickness could be a problem for Carolina.
--Panthers TE Ed Dickson vs. Bears S Eddie Jackson. The Panthers have found a good mix at times in looking downfield, so getting Dickson loose has been one of the benefits as he becomes more used to playing on a regular basis after the injury to TE Greg Olsen. The Panthers might want to see if Jackson, a rookie, pays enough attention to Dickson's whereabouts.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers LB Shaq Thompson. He has been praised for his athleticism and his instincts, but consistency has often been an issue. Now with the possibility that LB Luke Kuechly could be out again, this is a chance for Thompson to step forward and perhaps come up with one of the clutch plays that could help document his development. He's less hyped than Kuechly and veteran LB Thomas Davis.
FAST FACTS: Carolina QB Cam Newton has 842 passing yards (280.7 per game), eight TDs and two INTs in his past three road games. He has thrown for 300 yards and three TDs in his past two road games. ... Rookie RB Christian McCaffrey led the team with 10 receptions last week and has caught a TD pass in the past two games. He leads NFL rookies with 37 receptions and 293 yards. ... WR Devin Funchess has 14 receptions for 123 yards and three TDs in the past two road games. ... DE Julius Peppers had a sack and forced fumble last week. He ranks third in the NFC with 6.5 sacks. He has 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in the past five meetings. He spent four seasons with Chicago (2010-13) and had 37.5 sacks. He has 150 sacks and needs one to pass Chris Doleman (150.5) for fourth most all-time. ... LB Thomas Davis has 22 tackles and a forced fumble in the past three meetings. ... Chicago RB Jordan Howard led the team with a career-high 167 rushing yards last week. He has 995 scrimmage yards (124.4 per game) and eight rushing TDs in his past eight home games. He has three rushing TDs in the past four games. ... Rookie RB Tarik Cohen ranks second among NFL rookies with 26 catches. He has 100 scrimmage yards in two of three home games. He threw a 21-yard TD pass in Week 6 on his first career pass attempt, becoming the first rookie RB with a TD pass since Gale Sayers (1965).
PREDICTION: Newton has played well on the road and should lead the Panthers to a rebound win in Chicago.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 23-20.