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ATLANTA, GA – DECEMBER 31: Devonta Freeman #24 of the Atlanta Falcons runs against Thomas Davis #58 and Luke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panthers during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Week Five was one to forget for the Carolina Panthers. They escaped a near-upset by the New York Giants thanks to the leg of Graham Gano, who converted on a 63-yard field goal as time expired. The offense turned conservative, the defense struggled to stop the big plays, but it’s on to the next one as the team matches up against another NFC East opponent.

Ron Rivera‘s team will hit the road and face the Washington Redskins, a team that is coming off a blowout loss to Panthers division rival New Orleans Saints. Last week, Carolina returned plenty of key impact players and they gain two more this upcoming weekend. Linebacker Thomas Davis returns from his four-game suspension and tight end Greg Olsen is likely to play after healing very fast from his foot injury. It’s also worth mentioning that the team reunites with their former Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman for the second time since his departure from Carolina.

Both teams come in evenly matched and despite the plethora of injuries, the Redskins should not be taken lightly. Alex Smith is the new signal caller in Washington and the whole league knows what his tendencies are: dump it off short and avoid big risks. That is why the linebacker duo of Luke Kuechly and Davis should have the biggest impact on Sunday’s game.

Reunited at Last

Arguably the best linebacker duo in the NFL will see the field together for the first time in the 2018 season. Davis served a four-game suspension after testing positive for PEDs this off-season. The two linebackers combined for 201 tackles last year and really do a good job of making open-field tackles on shifty running backs. They will be tasked with slowing down two backs who exhibit those kinds of traits this weekend, Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson.

If you have watched football in the past decade, you know Peterson was one of the most dynamic running backs in all of history. But now, the 33-year-old is a shell of his former self. Peterson was banged up against the Saints but is expected to play through his shoulder injury against the Panthers. Thompson was also injured in the Monday night loss but will also be expected to play. Both backs will get their fair share of targets out in the flats with Smith at quarterback and it’s going to be up to Davis and Kuechly to hold them to minimal gains.

The Redskins have not had much of a vertical passing game this year. Their team leaders in receptions are Thompson and tight end, Jordan Reed. While the Panthers do not play a lot of man coverage, both Kuechly and Davis will be the ones who deal with those two targets. If the linebackers can stay underneath Reed and limit Thompson’s yards after the catch, Washington’s offense will be in for a long day.

Lake Norman

Next up on the Panthers 2018 reunion tour is the once-polarizing cornerback Josh Norman. In 2015, the Panthers defense was out of this world. The front-seven was fantastic and the secondary was lights out, specifically on one side of the field thanks to Norman. He helped lead the Panthers to Super Bowl 50 and earned himself a big pay raise the following off-season. However, former Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman could not come to terms with Norman and the corner was released, where he then signed with the Redskins.

Since then, the Panthers secondary has been a shell of its former self. James Bradberry has been solid, but far from elite. The Panthers have shuffled around a number of corners on the opposite side Bradberry but to no avail. At the same time, Norman has not lived up to his contract either. In a perfect world, the two parties could reunite if the Redskins decide to trade or cut the former all-pro cornerback, but it is unlikely.

It’s also worth noting Norman and Newton did not always see eye to eye when on the Panthers and there could be some extra chippiness if the two parties go head-to-head on Sunday.

Worst Case Scenario

Smith remembers how to throw a deep ball again and torches the Carolina secondary. The Panthers offense plays flat like they did in the second half of the Giants game and struggle to put points on the board. D.J. Moore continues to see minimal playing time and is a non-factor. Norman manhandles the likes of Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith, and Jarius Wright while picking off Newton twice.

Best Case Scenario

Kuechly and Davis put on a tackling clinic, force a couple fumbles, register a couple sacks each and the defense holds the Redskins to nothing but field goals. Newton finally starts taking some risks down the field and challenges the Redskins secondary. Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson combine for a big day rushing the ball setting up the play-action, which frees up targets down the field.

Bold Predictions

Score: Panthers 24 Redskins 15

Offensive MVP: Cam Newton (21-28, 310 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 32 rushing yards, 1 touchdown)

Defensive MVP: Thomas Davis (11 tackles, 2 pass deflections, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack)

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View the original article on Last Word On Pro Football: Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis Are the Keys to Shutting Down the Washington Redskins Offense