The New England Patriots travel to Charlotte, North Carolina to take on the Panthers on Monday Night Football (yee-haw.). Kickoff is at 8:40 PM, with the indomitable Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden providing commentary.
The Patriots come off their bye after a huge 55-31 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tom Brady looked his vintage self, throwing for over 400 yards for the fifth time in his career, and Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, and Rob Gronkowski all had 100-yard receiving games. Stevan “Van Riddles” put up 115 yards at 4.4 yards a carry, finding the end zone twice. The secondary had an iffy performance against Ben Roethlisberger, but the D-line (especially Chandler Jones) looked solid. Coming into Week 11, Patriots fans will be hoping to see the returns of Shane Vereen and Aqib Talib, both game-changers in their own right. And the Patriots shouldn’t be too rusty, as Belichick is 10-3 coming off the bye.
Yes, the Pats look really good coming of the win and a week of rest.
But forget all that. Because this matchup is goddamn brutal.
The Panthers are the hottest team in the NFL right now, coming into the game 6-3, and winners of five straight, capped off with a 10-9 grind-out with San Francisco. Cam Newton seems to be coming into his own. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart form a formidable running game.
The biggest bummer? The Panthers may have the strongest front seven in the NFL. Star Lotulelei, Luke Kuechly, Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Kawann Short? They’re all stalwarts. If you’re a Patriots fan, you’re worried.
But enough of that, let’s take a closer look.
Key Matchup: Tom Brady vs. the Carolina Secondary
Alright, the sneaky fact about the Panthers’ sudden resurgence? They haven’t faced an offense nearly as balanced and potentially explosive as New England’s. A quick breakdown of their five-game winning streak:
Week 6 – CAR 35, MIN 10: Listen I love Matt Cassel. But he’s not a starter on any team, except maybe Jacksonville. Panthers went up early, and the Vikings had to go to the air. Adrian Peterson only had 10 carries for 62 yards. 10 CARRIES.
Week 7 – CAR 30, 15: Again, Sam Bradford (Who still mustered together 21/30). Most impressive part of a game that got way out of hand with St. Louis penalties? Panthers effectively shut down Zac Stacy. More on that later.
Week 8 – CAR 31, TB 13 – The Dougie-Martin-less Bucs have Mike Glennon throw 51 times, and Mike James struggles on the ground. Woof.
Week 9 – CAR 34, ATL 10 – Panthers overcome a rough start by Cam Newton to put up 17 unanswered points in the 4th quarter against an overall defeated Atlanta team. Pick off Matt Ryan (without Jones or White) three times.
Last week’s game against San Francisco was the most impressive. Cam Newton struggled, but the front seven pretty much shut down Colin Kaepernick. Throw in some good luck (Carolina recovered both of their own fumbles) and the Panthers pulled out a big one.
But this Patriots offense is different. Tom Brady is the best quarterback the Panthers have faced in this stretch. With Gronk and Amendola fighting their way back to their usual selves, and the potential of Shane Vereen’s return, Brady has a lot of weapons to choose from. If he plays like the Brady we saw against Pittsburgh (a vaunted pass defense coming into that week by the way) and not like the shakier Brady from earlier in the season, he will keep the Pats in this game.
3 Questions Coming into this Game:
How much will the running game feature against Carolina?
Let’s all take a moment to applaud Van Riddles, who pretty much proved that if this team is going to have a bell cow, he’s the one and only man for the job. When he got going, the play-action got going, and LeGarrette Blount was effective as a change-of-pace back. But my god, Carolina has a scary run defense. We’ve seen that Ridley is most effective pounding behind his O-Line as opposed to running a sweep to the side, but the Lotulelei/Kuechly combo is the new and improved version of Wilfork/Spikes, and to run down the middle may be a futile cause. That being said, the Patriots have to run at some point, just because they depend on the play action so much. Look for the Patriots to start off in the spread and then go to the run to add some balance back to the offense. The Panthers secondary is their weakest asset, and it’s there that McDaniels/Brady should go first, but Ridley will not be MIA for long.
2. Can the O-Line keep Brady upright?
This won’t be pretty. The Patriots offensive line, for the most part of this season, has been relatively durable, but these last few weeks have been worrisome. Ryan Wendell and Logan Mankins have put up some real stinkers lately. Sebastian Vollmer is out for the season, and now Marcus Cannon will be facing up against Charles Johnson. This may not be pretty. Brady gets visibly shook the more hits he takes, and if the Panthers can get to him as often as they did to Kaepernick, this game may be over quickly.
3. Will the Patriots actually have a healthy squad?
Alright so obviously Steve Gregory won’t be back this week, and there are the plethora of Patriots out for the season. I’m talking about Aqib Talib and Shane Vereen. The Pats’ secondary has been decent while Talib’s been sidelined, but with him they’re a well above-average squad. He’s not only a shutdown corner who’s been awesome against elite wideouts so far, but his presence allows Arrington to go back to the slot and allows McCourty to worry less about having to cover a ton of ground and going back to his ball-hawking ways. Talib will face right off against his former division rival Steve Smith, and take away Newton’s surest weapon.
Just as important an addition will be Shane Vereen, who has elite dual-threat potential as a running back and as a receiver. Put him in the backfield, and the Panthers linebackers have to worry about him doing both. Vereen’s one game this season, Week 1 against Buffalo, was an example of what he brings to this offense: 14 rushes for 101 yards, and 7 receptions for 58 yards. If the Patriots can somehow get both of them back for Monday night, it will be a huge boost to their already considerable confidence.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Panthers 28
I’d like to start off by saying I hate the prediction listed above. The Panthers are maybe the worst possible matchup for the Patriots: a mobile quarterback, a dependable running game, an elite run defense, and a secondary that can produce turnovers.
But remember this. The Patriots have two advantages. One is in the coaching. The other is in the turnover battle. The Panthers got lucky last week recovering their fumbles. The Patriots won’t allow that. New England prides themselves on their ability to get turnovers, and Cam Newton has been far from perfect. If they make him commit to throwing the ball as opposed to using his legs, this game could be had.
It comes down to the turnover battle, the Patriots keeping a semi-balanced offense, and possession time. The Patriots have had a week to prepare and heal their bruises, and are coming off their most dominant performance of the season. With Talib and Vereen back, and one more week’s progression for Gronk and Amendola, things improve exponentially. I don’t pick against Brady and Belichick, not on Monday night. This is a huge statement game. The Panthers represent a younger, newer NFL, and I see the Pats relishing the chance to be the team to stop them in their tracks.
I don’t like it, but take New England to squeak it out.
(Quick note: I’m gonna be writing up an article on the Patriots’ draft hopes in the upcoming weeks, and I wanna hear what y’all have to say. Is there a college player you desperately want to see in a Pats’ uniform? Is there a position that you think the team really needs to address? Leave your thoughts below in the comments or tweet at me @isportspeters. Cool beans.)