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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: D up to Panthers challenge

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The NFL's early season No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense will face off on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium when Tom Brady's Patriots (2-1) host Luke Kuechly’s Panthers.

But while that matchup will get plenty of attention, it may be the teams’ lesser units that decide how the game plays out. That means a New England defense that is dead last in the league in both yards and points allowed faces yet another challenge against a suspect Cam Newton-led Carolina offense.

A week ago Houston arrived in Foxborough will plenty of questions about its offense led by athletic rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson and took New England down to the wire by scoring 33 points.

The way the Patriots defense is struggling these days there are no layup games and though Newton isn’t running like he did back in his 2015 MVP season, he still has the ability to make plays with both his legs and his rocket right arm.

One area that’s not facing too many questions right now is Brady’s passing attack. With Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski hitting their productive stride, the Patriots should be able to score against anyone.

Can Cam keep up? Or will the Patriots defense take this opportunity to quiet some critics against a Panthers offense that’s scored a mere three touchdowns in three games?

Heading toward what should be another beautiful fall afternoon at Gillette, here are a few keys to this matchup between two recent Super Bowl teams led by former MVP quarterbacks.

Going deep - The Patriots have clearly evolved into a bit more of a deep passing attack in 2017 as the offense morphs without Julian Edelman. Brady is averaging 9.9 yards per attempt, well beyond his career-best of 8.57 in 2011. Cooks is averaging 25.6 per catch. New England actually has five different targets with at least three catches who are averaging 15 yards per reception or more. The Panthers have the No. 3 pass defense this year but ranked just 29th last fall and may be closer to that number than the early season stats would suggest. The group will be without starting cornerback Daryl Worley. The other starting cornerback, James Bradberry, is a 6-1, second-year player who is probably not ideally suited to deal with Cooks, Phillip Dorsett or Danny Amendola as smaller, quicker receivers. Carolina’s safety duo of veterans Mike Adams and Kurt Coleman won’t exactly make up the difference. The back end is clearly the weakness of the Panthers defense and Brady should be able to attack that with his new-look aerial assault. Cooks has had at least six catches in each of his last four meetings with his former division rival, including a seven-catch, 173-yard performance against the Panthers last season. Go big at home once again.

Cam they do it? - New England’s defense made Watson look like Newton last week. The young passer extended plays and hit the passes he needed to in order to put up points. Now, the question is whether the real Newton can do the same. The former MVP isn’t running much anymore by design, trying to keep him healthy after offseason shoulder surgery. Newton has run just 14 times in three games for a 3.3-yard average. He’s not throwing the ball all that well, either. Newton is completing just 61.4 percent of his passes, has just two touchdowns compared to four interceptions and a mere 69.7 passer rating, fourth-worst in football. But the way the Patriots have played of late on defense nothing is a forgone conclusion. It will be another game where Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr. and the rest of the pass rush are as focused on the controlled pass rush as they are actually getting to the quarterback. Newton is significantly more dangerous on the move. As a pure passer he’s erratic and doesn’t have much depth of weapons with top target Greg Olsen on IR and Kelvin Benjamin dealing with a knee injury. It’s important that the Patriots make Newton look like the guy who’s struggled early in 2017 and not the guy who won the MVP while carrying the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015.

Protect this house - Much of the Patriots success and failure on offense looks like it will rest on the offensive line this season. When given time Brady has plenty of weapons who can tear apart opposing defensive backfields. Houston got after Brady pretty good last week with five sacks, three forced fumbles and eight QB hits. That can’t continue if Brady is going to stay healthy and continue to produce at an elite level. The front seven is clearly the strength of the Panthers defense led by Kuechly. Aging pass rusher Julius Peppers has 2.5 sacks for a front that’s gotten to opposing QBs eight times. The Panthers can also bring interior pressure with Kawann Short, whose seven pressures in three games lead Carolina’s defense. The Patriots could get Marcus Cannon back in the lineup, but the guys who have been healthy need to do a much better job keeping Brady clean. That’s the biggest challenge the offense faces against Carolina.

Don't let Christian mingle - With Olsen out of action and Benjamin missing practice time this week, Newton has limited weapons. Maybe his most dangerous athlete at this point is first-round rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. The former Stanford star is a matchup nightmare given his speed and route running ability. He’s coming off his first 100-yard receiving game and leads the Panthers with 18 receptions for 173 yards. McCaffrey isn’t running the ball with much success, though, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry on his 25 rushes on the year. Still, finding and defending McCaffrey on any given snap will be a key for New England’s linebackers and safeties. He’s more of a theory than dominant weapon right now, but McCaffrey has the ability to hit the big play at any time from almost anywhere on the field. Kyle Van Noy, Devin McCourty and Co. need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Prediction: Brady has never lost at home when facing the No. 1 defense in the regular season. That streak shouldn’t change. The Panthers are better on paper than in reality on defense. If Brady is given the time to work he should find plenty of plays down the field to his corps of weapons. The Patriots may not find as much room to work in the underneath passing game and the running game doesn’t feel like an area that can be counted on at this point. But the intermediate and deep passing game should be enough to get the job done offensively assuming Dante Scarnecchia’s offensive line is up to the challenge of the Panthers front. Defensively the Panthers just aren’t that potent – I know, we said the same thing about the Texans last week – and the defense should have a chance to show some improvement. Keep Newton in the pocket – where both teams strangely seem to want him at this point – and make him try to pass his way down the field on long drives. The Panthers aren’t running the ball and throwing it all that well right now. New England’s much-maligned defense should be good enough to win the battle in front of the home crowd, even if nothing is easy on that side of the ball these days. In the end Brady should be able to lead the way to the 31-17 victory, assuming there are not too many turnovers or game-changing big plays that favor the visitors. This feels like a weekend where the Patriots take a step toward quieting some of the early-season critics with an expected but still much-needed solid win.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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