By BARRY WILNER
Two of the NFL’s most disappointing teams meet Sunday in Charlotte.
“We need a victory, bad,” fullback Lawrence Vickers said. “This is very critical to get this win.”
Carolina (1-4) didn’t have such high expectations, but the Panthers expected to build off Cam Newton’s Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign and at least be in the mix in the NFC South. Instead — and even with New Orleans and Tampa Bay struggling — the Panthers are an also-ran, ranked 23rd in yards gained and 25th in points scored; in 2011 they finished seventh in total offense and fifth in points scored.
“This team relies heavily on this offense, and that’s been different than in years past,” veteran receiver Steve Smith said. “And yet we haven’t done anything consistently that would help our defense stay off the field. All we’ve done is kind of been middling around a little bit and been real lethargic and left (the defense) out there on the field longer than they should be.”
The Steelers can’t be accused of that more of them meet in Cincinnati.
The Cowboys head to Carolina having lost three of their last four after an uplifting opening victory at the Giants. Dallas (2-3) had designs on taking charge of the NFC East, especially following the victory in the Meadowlands, but finds itself in last place in the division thanks to bad time management, critical dropped passes and a conference-high nine interceptions off Tony Romo.
“We net; their offense has been very protective of the ball (only four turnovers) and quite productive through the air, ranking seventh in yards passing. But Pittsburgh (2-3) has the appearance of a team in transition, particularly on the offensive line and everywhere on defense, where injuries have been damaging — star safety Troy Polamalu won’t play Sunday night.
“It comes down to playmaking,” coach Mike Tomlin said, “and we haven’t made enough significant plays.”
When they head to Cincinnati (3-3), the Steelers will find an AFC North rival that is reeling. The Bengals flopped against Miami at home, then in Cleveland, handing the Browns their first win. Their big-play defense has yet to materialize.
“It’s not time to jump ship,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We’re 3-3 just like everybody else in our conference. At the end of the day, it’s not about wins and losses, it’s about who makes the playoffs.
“Our goals are all still right there in front of us. Somebody that’s 3-3 has to go win some games and get in the playoffs. Why not be us?”
Tennessee (2-4) at Buffalo (3-3), 7 a.m.
Yet two more teams that had high expectations for this season, the Titans hoping to build off their surprising 9-7 record of 2011, the Bills believing their retooled roster was ready to carry them back to the playoffs for the first time since Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Marv Levy — well, not quite that long ago, but you get the picture.
Tennessee hasn’t played since rallying to upset Pittsburgh in a Thursday night game, and will go with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback with Jake Locker still sidelined by his dislocated left shoulder. Hasselbeck has been sacked eight times, and Buffalo finally discovered a pass rush in its overtime win at Arizona, knocking down Cardinals QBs five times.
The Bills lost consecutive games by a combined 97-31 before beating the Cards. Coach Chan Gailey doesn’t believe there’s an ounce of satisfaction after that win.
“I have not sensed anything different and, to be honest with you, I do not want to,” he said. “I still want them to be hungry. I still want them to be mad. We need to have the mindset that we have to go out and have something to prove every week. Just because you won one ballgame and got back to .500, that is nothing. We are nowhere right now.”
Baltimore (5-1) at Houston (5-1), 7 a.m., CBS
Here they are, the only two AFC teams with winning records. No kidding — there are seven teams at 3-3, including the entire East.
The Ravens had a rousing 31-29 victory over Dallas last weekend, but it was way too costly. The right triceps injury that likely will sideline Ray Lewis for the remainder of the season takes away Baltimore’s heart and soul, the true leader of the Ravens. And the left knee injury to Lardarius Webb that requires surgery takes away the team’s best cover cornerback.
“Well you don’t replace it specifically,” coach John Harbaugh said of losing Lewis. “We’ll all have to replace, it’ll be up to all of us, 53 players, 20 coaches, front office, scouts, cafeteria workers, we’re all going to have to grab onto the rope on that one. He’s … arguably one of the greatest leaders in all of sports.”
After its first stumble of the season, Houston can grab back the inside track to being the AFC’s elite team. Not that the Texans have it in mind.
“This is what, the seventh game of the season? We’re not even halfway finished,” running back Arian Foster said. “So it could go downhill or uphill, either way. So nobody’s thinking about that. We’re just thinking about winning Game 7.”
Arizona (4-2) at Minnesota (4-2), 7 a.m.
The banged-up Cardinals go back to John Skelton at quarterback after Kevin Kolb hurt his ribs. Arizona has lost two straight as its offense stagnated: After scoring 91 points in its four victories, Arizona has 19 in its successive defeats.
Minnesota might not be the best place to get things straight. The Vikings, one of the most pleasant surprises in the league, seem to be getting their pass rush on track and Arizona has yielded 28 sacks, 22 in the last three games.
“They’ve struggled a little bit up front,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “They’ll have a different quarterback this week so that’s going to change things a little bit. We’ll have to study John and get a better feel for him, but whether that improves the offensive line or not, we’ll find out. We really have to do a good job up front on our end.”
Minnesota has done a very good job at home, going 3-0.
New York Jets (3-3) at New England (3-3), 10 a.m. CBS
One of football’s most bitter rivalries, and with the Jets coming off a lopsided victory and the Patriots blowing a lead in Seattle to lose, New York has taken the offensive — verbally.
Hard to imagine with coach Rex Ryan, isn’t it?
“I want them to know, and they know, that I think we’re going to beat them,” Ryan said. “I don’t buy into all that other stuff. Look, I recognize they’re a great football team and (Bill) Belichick’s a great coach. I’ve never once said he wasn’t, OK, but we’re not going to back down or concede anything. They’re going to get our best shot. We know we’re going to get theirs. It doesn’t matter who says what, because we’re going to be ourselves. We’re coming up there to take our swing. We’ll see if we land that punch to win the game.”
Although the Jets have tried to emphasize a “Ground and Pound” running game, it’s the Patriots who have been more successful. New England is averaging 4.2 yards a carry and has 10 touchdowns rushing. New York is at 3.8 with four TDs, all by Shonn Greene, who ran for a career-high 161 yards and three touchdowns against Indianapolis.
Washington (3-3) at N.Y. Giants (4-2), 7 a.m., Fox
Washington went 2-4 in the NFC East a year ago. Both wins came against the Giants, who merely went on to win it all.
These Redskins, sparked by the versatility and excitement Robert Griffin III brought to the nation’s capital, are a better team than the 2011 version. Griffin isn’t the only difference — the defense is eighth against the run and the team is plus-9 in turnover margin — but he is the main reason the Giants must be very careful.
Griffin is liable to do anything, such as run 76 yards for a touchdown, outsprinting Minnesota’s defensive backs to the end zone last Sunday.
“You get a quarterback like Robert, you see what he’s comfortable with,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “And you try to run your offense accordingly. But it’s a learning experience. We’re going to grow with this every week. … It’s kind of fun to tinker around with a number of things — some things you haven’t done before.”
This is the first division game for Washington; New York is 0-2 in the NFC East.
Detroit (2-3) at Chicago (4-1), 2:30 p.m. Monday
The Lions might have saved their season with a big rally to win at Philadelphia last week. They might need something similar against a better team at Soldier Field.
Detroit ranks second in yards on offense and Chicago is third in overall defense. If the Lions commit 16 penalties, an NFL high this season, the way they did against the Eagles, the Bears won’t let them hang around.
Chicago was off last week, meaning its peaking defense is locked and loaded.
Several skirmishes broke out the last time these NFC North rivals met, a 37-13 home romp for the Bears.
Green Bay (3-3) at St. Louis (3-3), 7 a.m.
This is a solid test to see if the Packers righted themselves with last Sunday night’s victory at Houston. St. Louis is 3-0 at home, with victories over some good teams: Washington, Arizona and Seattle.
“It’s just playing good football,” Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “If we play the way we know we can play, which Sunday was a good picture of that, we can stack these successes. Yeah, we had a good game. But that game’s over. Now it’s time to go out this Sunday and do it again. It’s going to be important to do that, and it’s going to be a challenge.”
St. Louis outplayed Miami on the road last weekend and still fell 17-14.
New Orleans (1-4) at Tampa Bay (2-3), 7 a.m.
So let’s see if not losing in two weeks — a comeback win over San Diego followed by a bye — has gotten the Saints back on track. There’s still a ton of noise surrounding them with the bounties scandal, of course, and one of Tampa Bay’s four victories last season came against the Saints. In fact, the Bucs then lost their next 10.
New Orleans seemed headed for that type of season; some of its early-season performances sickened Drew Brees.
“If I wanted to throw up, I would have,” the record-setting quarterback said. “We put those to bed a long time ago. What we’ve seen is we’ve gotten better here. We’ve improved. We still have a long way to go, but it gets you excited about the possibilities and the potential of this offense and this team.”
Cleveland (1-5) at Indianapolis (2-3), 7 a.m.
New owner Jimmy Haslam hopes the Browns can build on last Sunday’s victory over Cincinnati, when, he says, they played their best football of the season in the fourth quarter. But the Browns haven’t won two straight in this series since 1988.
As can be expected from a young, rebuilding team, the Colts have been inconsistent. They followed their rousing rally to beat Green Bay with a dud in the Meadowlands against the Jets.
Most intriguing matchup here should be Colts veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, who has been sensational lately, against Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden.
Jacksonville (1-4) at Oakland (1-4), 10:25 a.m.
The Raiders played their best game of the season in nearly handing Atlanta its first loss. Nearly: Oakland fell apart late and was beaten by Matt Bryant’s 55-yard field goal.
Darren McFadden had a career-high 209 yards from scrimmage with three TDs in the last meeting with the Jaguars, who are far less formidable than the Falcons.
But Jacksonville comes off a bye and has won the last four against the Raiders. That shouldn’t make the Jaguars feel comfortable, though — they’ve been outscored 99-16 in their last three trips to the West Coast.