Carolina Panthers

Control of the ball key for Panthers

CHARLOTTE -- There's not much the Panthers have to do today to beat the Indianapolis Colts.

Other than be perfect.

The only things the Panthers can pretend to point to as advantages today are all subjective intangible hoo-hah, like the Colts' short week after playing a physical Jacksonville defense (which they torched) on Monday. Even being at home's no plus, since they've lost four straight here. And as absurd as it sounds, they might also get an emotional bounce from the eternal quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, who'll start again today since David Carr's back isn't completely healed yet.

On the other hand, Indianapolis has all the big tangible edges (quarterback Peyton Manning, coach Tony Dungy, a fast young defense), which means the Panthers can't make any mistakes today if they want to compete.

Here's a 10-point plan, all of which need to break just right, if the Panthers want to hang onto their slim chance of beating the undefeated Colts.

1-3. Run

This is more than one item on the list, because everything hinges on the Panthers' rushing attack.

First and most importantly, it shortens the game, giving Manning fewer chances to do what he does best.

Second, it's the best chance you have to move the ball against a Colts defense that's disciplined and fast but small. It doesn't happen often, but the teams who've had success against them the last few years were the ones who won the battle up front.

Third, you have to commit to running, even if it doesn't work early. The four teams that beat the Colts last year all ran the ball at least 35 times, and none of them passed more than 25. Dallas stuck with the ground game, even though the Cowboys managed a meager 3.25 yards per attempt. The key was, they eventually broke though in the second half.

You have to stay on that side of the ratio if you want to compete, because there aren't many quarterbacks out there not named Tom Brady who want to get into a shoot-out against these guys.

4. Keep 89 involved

In a twisted way, the Panthers are actually sort of built to play against a defense like the Colts, since they're susceptible to running, which leads to play-action and the deep pass.

Their corners are young and acceptable, but neither of them can single-cover Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith. And since safety Bob Sanders is capable of coming up and making plays in the run game, there will be a few times when there's a single safety back there to help. The Panthers have to get Smith the ball in these instances, because he's the one guy on their roster who can change the game in a moment.

The good news is that Testaverde has already shown an ability to find Smith, while Carr seemed to see Keary Colbert better in times of trial. Smith has to be a significant factor when they do pass, or it won't matter much. Testaverde also provides a bigger arm, which might enable them to go downfield more often.

5. Be very careful

You simply can't turn the ball over against these guys.

The way their defense is built, it's extremely opportunistic. And again, Manning's perhaps at his best responding to other team's problems, because he can make you pay for a mistake in a hurry.

This also applies to protecting the quarterback. That Dwight Freeney guy, he's pretty good. And if he gets to Testaverde more than once, it could spell trouble for the old guy.

6. Show them something different.

Because Manning's so smart, he can get a good read on a defense at the line of scrimmage.

Safety Chris Harris said when the Bears were playing them in the Super Bowl last year, they tried to mix up their looks on each play (not that it worked all that well). The larger point stands, you have to try to complicate things for him.

But this is where it gets interesting. The Panthers' defense has been less intricate rather than more the last two games, when they've played so well. When coach John Fox started getting more involved on that side of the ball, the number of unique packages shrunk, and players just started playing the basic scheme better.

They're going to have to show some new tricks today.

7. Be physical (but disciplined)

The old idea against the Colts was to manhandle their receivers, to knock them off routes and disrupt the timing of their Swiss-watch offense.

But now that they again have a steady rushing presence (Joseph Addai) and a stellar receiving tight end (Dallas Clark), it's not so simple.

They can create mismatches with their personnel, since they do most of their work out of either a three-wide receiver or two-tight end grouping.

That means defenses will be torn on whether to bring in their nickel package (which might leave a smaller corner like Richard Marshall on Clark) or stick with base personnel (putting him on a slower linebacker). It's almost a no-win, especially if Addai gets going early.

That means rookie Jon Beason's going to have to play his best game yet, because the Colts are more balanced than they used to be.

When Harris picked off Manning in the Super Bowl, he kept his position and didn't bite on a pump fake, enabling him to make a play on a pass down the middle. It's tempting to go on his first move, but you have to trust what you've seen on film.

8. Inside rush

As good as Julius Peppers is, and even though Mike Rucker's coming off his best game of the year, the Panthers' pass rush needs to come up the middle.

Manning gets the ball out so quickly, there aren't many opportunities for edge-rushes to be effective. So whether it's stunting the ends or doing things to single up quicker interior defenders Kris Jenkins and Damione Lewis, the rush has to come inside-out rather than the alternative.

If Jenkins has that week where he's guessing right on snap counts and penetrating (instead of just drawing offsides penalties), they might get something going.

9. Field position

Again, you know that the Colts' offense is going to move the ball. So you have to make it as hard on them as possible. The Panthers have done well in the punting game, but they have to get something out of their own return units to maintain the balance.

This is where ball security comes in as well, because they've shown a knack for burying teams who turn it over on their own side of the field.

10. Get lucky

Sure, they're coming off a short week. But unless someone's prank-calling their hotel in the middle of the night, it's not like they won't be rested enough to come here and play and win.

It's going to take a break, a loose ball, some unusual occurrence.

And hey, it could happen. After all, if a 43-year-old Testaverde can come in off the couch to win in a short week with guys he'd never met, who's to say he can't do it again now that he's at least learned most of the names.

With all the time spent breaking down film and scheming and practicing, it's distasteful to coaches to think things hinge on such arbitrary events.

But on a day like today, it might take the strange and unusual, because there's not much you can otherwise point to that would suggest they have a shot.

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