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What to watch for in Panthers vs. Redskins on 'MNF'

This meeting has been eight months in the making.

Intrigue for this mid-Atlantic matchup was already high when the schedule makers keyed this inter-conference matchup for Monday night in the offseason. After all, the Panthers were the reigning conference champs and the Redskins were coming off their first NFC East title three years.

But when Washington stole Josh Norman from the Panthers in April, it turned this Week 15 test into a must-see affair.

Sure, Cam Newton and Carolina have fallen off a virtual cliff, more distracted by neck-tie tomfoolery than by their fledgling running game. But that doesn't take anything away from what should be a testy reunion between Norman and his former team.

Here's what to watch for when the Panthers (5-8) head north to take on the Redskins (7-5-1) onMonday Night Football:

  1. Welcome to the Josh Norman Revenge Game, Presented by Shade and Smack Talk. The Redskins cornerback's surprising exodus from Carolina in the offseason will be the main talking point before, during and after Monday night's telecast.

After the Panthers placed and then suddenly rescinded their franchise tag on Norman, the All-Pro signed a five-year deal with Washington, becoming the most valuable cornerback in the league at $15 million a year. Norman's absence in Carolina's secondary was immediately felt at the start of the season, most notably against the Falcons during Julio Jones' 300-yard game, and has haunted Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman throughout the year. Meanwhile, the corner is having quite a nice season in Landover -- he's the 18th-ranked cornerback in the league according to Pro Football Focus -- and is proving wrong those who suggested he was a product of a Carolina game plan that kept him away from top-tier wideouts.

Of course, Norman has a massive chip on his shoulder, saying earlier this week that he's as eager to match up against his former team "just as much as I'm looking forward to being Santa Claus." Whatever that means. We expect the quips to keep coming on Monday night and to see some fireworks from both sides when Norman lines up against Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn and Carolina's receiving corps.

  1. How will the Panthers defense play if Luke Kuechly is back in the lineup? The Pro Bowl linebacker missed the last three games with a concussion, and there was a notable difference in Carolina's performance on the defensive side of the ball. In Weeks 12 through 14, the Panthers allowed 30.3 points per game and a 47.6 third down conversion percentage, both nearly double their marks from the three weeks prior. Kuechly is questionable to return, but is expected to play and pay dividends. Carolina is 1-6 this season when allowing at least 21 points, and on Monday night, they will be coming face to face with the second-best passing offense in the league in Kirk Cousins' Redskins. With tight end Jordan Reed threatening up the middle of the field, Kuechly would be pivotal to the Panthers' chances against Washington's multi-faceted attack.
  1. Speaking of Cousins, the quarterback is having a career year in a prove-it season. Since Week 7 of last season, Cousins has the league's highest passer rating (107.6) and has thrown 46 touchdowns, second only to Drew Brees. If Cousins tosses for 300 yards against Carolina, he'll tie a franchise record for such games in a season (7), a mark he already set last year! And all this with a multi-year contract on the line. The key to Cousins' special campaign has been his bevy of playmakers, any of whom can break out and steal the game at any moment. Reed, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder have all been the beneficiary of receiver roulette with Cousins at some point this season, but it may be DeSean Jackson who will be featured on Monday. The Redskins receiver has 80-plus receiving yards in five straight Monday Night Football games. With Robert Kelley likely bottled up by Carolina's fifth-ranked run defense, look for Jackson to get behind the Panthers' secondary and be Captain Kirk's go-to guy.
  1. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. One season ago, the Panthers were undefeated and priming for a playoff run atop the NFC. Now they're eight losses deep into a frustrating campaign, marked by concussion drama and tie shenanigans. Carolina has the most losses of any team to finish 15-1 the previous season and, thanks to Atlanta's win over the 49ers on Sunday, has been mercilessly eliminated from playoff contention this season.

Things are rosier in D.C. The 'Skins still have an opportunity to earn their first back-to-back postseason appearances since 1990-92, but they'll need some help. Washington (7-5-1) enters Monday night as the sixth seed in the NFC with the Bears and Giants remaining. A win would secure the 'Skins' place in the postseason picture for at least a week because of Tampa Bay's loss to the Cowboys on Sunday night.

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