Familiarity in the NFL can be both comforting and unnerving at the same time. The lack of surprise one expects from their divisional rivals is what makes winning those game so difficult; there is very little to hide. Against Baltimore, the Bengals knew what they were in for and the results came accordingly. Against Carolina, however, all the team can do is watch film and give it their best. Most of the players on both sides haven't played in a Bengals/Panthers match-up before and how they stack up is more guesswork than anything else.
Right now, the Panthers are reeling and their fan base is sour. Back-to-back losses to the Giants and Buccaneers have put a major damper on any optimism the team and its followers built up for themselves in the preseason. The Bengals, on the other hand, are still something of a mystery for most experts, as they have looked like two different teams in the young season so far. From Cincinnati's perspective, it's a matter of which team will show up in Charlotte on Sunday. From Carolina's, it's a matter of showing the world that they can compete this season.
Panthers offense vs. Bengals defense
Despite the lack of regular meetings between the two, the Bengals know where Carolina's strengths lay. By drafting both DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart, and now deciding to go with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, the Panthers have fully committed to the run, and defenses will respond by loading up the box to stop it. The offensive line has been shaky for Carolina, and reliable receiving options are few. There is no doubt that they will insist on establishing the run.
Last week they pounded DeAngelo Williams early, which tenderized the defense and allowed Johnathan Stewart to break off good chunks of yardage on some nice runs. I expect them to try to ware down the Bengals run defense and keep it a game of field position and time-of-possession. Carolina will try to limit Clausen's passing attempts to a minimum, and pass on shorter routes when they do go to the air.
Within their passing game exists a small but very fiery receiver in the form of Steve Smith. Perhaps forgotten and somewhat overlooked around a rebuilding franchise, Smith is still the same hard-nosed mighty mouse he's always been. He has amazing core strength and reminds me of an ant who has speed, hands, and a mean streak. He's tough on slants, and can go deep—he is not to be taken lightly.
Like always, he will be doubled often because the Panthers have yet to find a receiver opposite of Smith that prevents defenses from doing so. Their tight end, Dante Rosario, is said to have good hands (although he did drop a touchdown last week), and the Panthers seem to target him a few times a game, but there seems no need for Zimmer to worry much about the Panthers' receiving threats.
Blitzing a rookie quarterback always makes sense to me. This is the golden-domer's first career start; I'm sure he's a bright young man but I dare say he isn't necessarily a master of his offense quite yet. Therefore, he should have people in his face all day long, forcing him to make quick decisions. With safeties cheating to stop the run anyway, I would think Zimmer might dare Clausen to go deep on his corners and see if the rookie can make plays.
Bengals offense vs. Panthers defense
The Panthers defense is solid but not remarkable. Their leader is outside linebacker Jon Beason, but middle linebacker Dan Connor is another good tackler who supported the run very well last week against Tampa Bay. Also in that game, the defensive line put a good amount of pressure on Josh Freeman—who, unfortunately for Carolina, often scrambled his way to positive yardage on such occasions. The good news for the Panthers is that Carson Palmer can't do that as well. So if they're able to get that kind of pressure again this week, the Bengals passing attack could be flustered by sacks and early deliveries. Palmer and his boys were criticized last week for being out of step against the Ravens, and Carson becomes very mediocre when the pocket collapses; putting heat on him with the front four without blitzing a ton of other guys could make the day a winnable one for the Panthers.
The Carolina secondary, however, looks vulnerable in coverage and are presumably poor tacklers based on what I saw last week. There is no need to rattle off all of the Bengals weapons again—we've all got a handle on that—the point is, there are enough of them to score on nearly and secondary, but talk is cheap until the forecast results come true. Sure the Bengals will hand it to Cedric Benson 20 times, and continue to give Bernard Scott more chances to shine, but the pass protection for the Bengals is the key to this game. Give Carson time, and they win.
As for specific game-planning, I would work the flats and call run plays to the outside; the Panthers defense seems strongest up the gut and gets weaker closer to the sideline. Of course, if Palmer does have time, he will attempt a deep ball or two to his big and fast receiving group which is the right way to go, but the Bengal receivers have also shown unique possession qualities that can be instrumental to scoring drives and shouldn't be ignored.
Because of the unfamiliarity between the teams, its outcome is nearly impossible to predict—not that my predictions have been all that impressive lately anyway. Nonetheless, I think that it will be another slugfest that underwhelms the offensive fan but translates into the Bengals third win of the season. I expect more punts and field goals and an average statistical outcome for Carson. Once more, people will grumble about lack of style points and pundits will think that they're on to something by saying the Bengals look like last year—they might even drop in the power rankings—but a win is a win and that's the important part.
Bengals 16, Panthers 9
Mojokong—coming to a theater nearest you.