Baltimore have built a defence that could make them a Super Bowl challenger come January. They'll fancy their chances of closing down a hampered Cam Newton in Charlotte, writes Mark Kirwan...
'Even last week, they went toe-to-toe with the New Orleans' heavyweight offence and, but for Justin Tucker's once in an eternity XP miss, they'd have had a great shot at taking down one of the true challengers for the Lombardi trophy.'
Baltimore Ravens @ Carolina Panthers
Sunday, 17:00 BST
Live on Sky Sports Action
The NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. Marathons require endurance.
A quick look at the injury reports of both these teams shows how rosters are tested by the grind of 17 regular season weeks.
Quarterback Cam Newton is the mass around which Carolina's hopes as an NFC dark horse revolve, which makes seeing him miss practices concerning.
Yes, he seems to have the constitution of Wolverine based on his recovery from terrifying car accidents, not to mention the hits he takes as the Panthers' best rushing threat, but you do begin to wonder at what point the hits he takes will start to catch up with the 29-year-old.
Coach Ron Rivera fully expects him to play this week even though he has been resting his throwing shoulder. That injury is bound to have some impact on his willingness to take hits in the running game too, but the 2015 league MVP's accuracy as a passer has always been latched on by critics. His season stats are the best of his career in this area, but any impairment to his passing motion isn't welcome.
Not that the Panthers passing game has been setting the world alight. Rookie DJ Moore is still waiting for his breakout game, Devin Funchess leads receptions thanks to Greg Olsen extended absence, and Christian McCaffrey is a useful target out of the backfield, but Carolina's inconsistency - they come into this game on 4-2, but have struggled to wins over the dreadful Giants and Cowboys, and lost to the Redskins - makes them tough to trust.
Their defence isn't the force it has been previously, and any problems with their QB's health could knock them further off their axis.
Ravens D controlling games
For the Ravens, this year has seen an up-tick on offence thanks to smart recruitment at wide receiver, a healthier offensive line, and Joe Flacco getting a kick in the behind from Lamar Jackson.
The story for Baltimore though has been their defence, who are just two weeks removed from an 11 sack crumpling of a less-than-titanic Tennessee.
Even last week, they went toe-to-toe with the New Orleans' heavyweight offence and, but for Justin Tucker's once in an eternity XP miss, they'd have had a great shot at taking down one of the true challengers for the Lombardi trophy.
That effort came at a cost though. Several members of their secondary are missing practice, with Marlon Humphrey definitely out this week and Jimmy Smith limited. While his early season "break" for a PED violation didn't seem to hamper them, a cluster of knocks and niggles to the tightest defence in the league could hit the Ravens hopes of challenging in an open AFC.
Issues are also accumulating along the offensive line, and Joe Flacco's new favourite toy, John Brown, is listed on the injury report along with Michael Crabtree. If either of those miss out on Sunday it'll impair the rejuvenated QB.
The Panthers are a very tough team to call. Their win over the Eagles last week saw them punt on every possession before the fourth quarter, and then they rattled off three touchdowns in a row. It sums up their season, weaving from stagnant performances to sudden bursts of offensive power. They're undefeated at home too, so going against them is tough even if we like Baltimore.
But the Ravens simply look a more reliable and consistent unit. Even as someone who loves the Saints team, it was hard not to feel the Ravens got screwed by the gold standard of kickers' inexplicable extra-point aberration. They look like the cream of the AFC North this season and, health permitting, they'll be a threat come January.
Carolina have made tough work of much weaker defence than Sunday's visitors. Even though their trends on homefield are strong, and Baltimore won't be at full strength, I'd take the Ravens -2 at [2.00] because their defence can cope with any team in the league and can really trouble an injured Cam.
On the Total Points market, the under 44 points line appeals. Cam Newton was held in check for three quarter last week by the Eagles. Their feathered counterparts this week could last the full 60 minutes this week and that means Carolina torpedo this line at [1.96].
If you are looking for a bigger priced punt, I'd take the Ravens' defence to score a touchdown because of the likely pressure they'll put Cam under. They're currently 7/2 on in the any time TD markets.
1pt on the Baltimore Ravens -2 on the Handicap market @ [2.00] on the Exchange
1pt on Under 44 on the Total Points market @ [1.96] on the Exchange
0.5pt on Ravens Defence/ST in the Any Time Touchdown Scorer market at 7/2 on the Sportsbook