LANDOVER, Md. (AP) More than a year has passed since the Carolina Panthers crushed the Washington Redskins to remain undefeated on their way to the Super Bowl, and, oh, how things have changed.
All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman signed with the Redskins after the Panthers removed the franchise tag to make him a free agent.
While Carolina’s younger defense and quarterback Cam Newton have struggled and failed to meet expectations, Washington (7-5-1) remains in the NFC wild-card hunt with three games to go.
These aren’t the same Panthers (5-8) who beat the Redskins 44-16 in November 2015, but they’re still a formidable group in the way of Kirk Cousins and Co. returning to the playoffs.
”A lot of the same players are back, so we’re going to have our hands full,” said Cousins, who needs 122 yards to break his single-season franchise passing record from last year.
”I remember we had five turnovers and if we turn the ball over again we can expect a similar result. We’ve got to protect the football and if we do that, we’ve got a chance, but if we turn it over, we’ll put ourselves in a hole just like we did last year.”
Without Norman, Carolina starts two rookie cornerbacks in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. But Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are still there on the Panthers’ defensive line and can rush Cousins, who has 23 touchdowns to nine interceptions this season.
The Redskins’ offense hasn’t been the problem. Ricky Jean Francois said the defense, which has struggled on third down and in the red zone, is aiming to do two things: ”Win and stop Cam Newton.”
Last year’s NFL MVP is banged up and struggling, but Washington doesn’t see him as a hobbled star or the Panthers as a hobbled team.
”I understand what their record is, but that’s still a team at any given time that can still come out and become the Carolina they once were last year with the quarterback they have,” Jean Francois said.
”And they got a great head coach so I know he’s pushing those guys up front to keep being the team that they are – not the team they are now but the team he knows they’re capable of being.”
Some things to watch when the Panthers visit the Redskins on Monday night:
SACK ATTACK: The Panthers don’t have anyone in double digits in sacks this season, but still lead the NFL in that category with 39. Eighteen different players have been in on a sack this season for the Panthers, led by situational pass rusher Mario Addison with 7+.
”It’s never one thing,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of the team’s rise up the leaderboard in sacks. ”I know sometimes you guys want me to say, `Well, it’s just this. Here was the magic deal.’ No, it’s working hard. It’s earning the right to be good.
”We got off to maybe a slow start in that (sacks) category. But the guys have worked extremely hard. The coaches have worked extremely hard to get it to where it is right now.”
NORMAN FIRED UP: Redskins coach Jay Gruden believes Norman gets up for every game, but this one against his former team will have some extra juice.
Norman said he almost felt ”stabbed in the back” when the Panthers removed the franchise tag. ”I think come Monday night, those emotions I think they will probably come out and show themselves,” Norman said.
BENJAMIN EXPECTS TRASH TALK: Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin anticipates he will be matched up against Norman for most of the game and expects to hear plenty of trash talk from his former teammate.
”Oh yeah, I know he will” talk trash, Benjamin said with a wide smile. ”I’m looking forward to it.” Norman and Benjamin exchanged trash talk when the two practiced against each other, but said he never let the cornerback get in his head.
”Not at all, actually,” Benjamin said with a smile. ”I would probably say I used to get in Josh’s head more than he got in mine. I just came in with an attitude (my rookie year) to compete.”
SO MUCH FOR MVP: Newton has struggled with accuracy all season and has completed just 43 percent of his passes over his past four games with no more than 14 completions in any of those matchups. Newton is completing 53.5 percent of his passes for the season, the worst mark among starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
Newton said Wednesday that he ”couldn’t care less” about his completion percentage and his only concern is wins and losses.
SPAIGHT’S SPOTLIGHT: With middle linebacker Will Compton injured, Martrell Spaight could make his first pro start for the Redskins. Spaight filled in for Compton in a victory at the Philadelphia Eagles and will be given the headset and the controls to the defense against Carolina.
”He’s a young football player still with limited starting reps, but this is a great opportunity for him,” Gruden said. ”We’ll see what he can do. We have a good feeling of what he can do. We know he can play the run, he’s very physical.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed.
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