The Patriots (7-2) had plenty of time off to rest and get healthy during last week's bye, but return to action this Monday night with a road battle with a formidable feline foe in the form of the Panthers (6-3). Last time we saw New England the team's offense was having a breakout performance in a blowout of the overmatched Steelers. Now, Tom Brady and a rejuvenated cast of targets will try to keep that passing momentum going on the road against a Panthers defense that ranks among the best in the game in most statistical categories and has led the team to a five-game winning streak. Carolina wants to prove it's among the best teams in the league and a true contender. New England wants to show that its offense is back and ready to carry the team over the second half of the season. Fans will have to wait through a full weekend of football and a distracted day of work on Monday before kickoff. To keep focused on this matchup during that long wait, enjoy this Are-You-Ready-For-Some-Football? edition of the Patriots at Panthers Pregame Six-Pack!
1. No turnover advantage – Normally the Patriots have an advantage in the turnover battle, a tasty recipe for success that goes back years. That's been the case most often this season as New England ranks third in the NFL at plus-9. The defense has forced a turnover in 36 straight games, a unit that trails only the Chiefs in take-aways in the AFC with 19. But this week's matchup comes against a Panthers defense that matches up quite well with the Patriots in the turnover game. Carolina is tied for fourth in the league with a plus-8 turnover differential. The Panthers upstart defense has forced 21 turnovers through nine games, fourth-most in the NFL. So, which team can win the ever-important turnover battle? And if the battle is played even, does that put one team at more of a disadvantage than the other? New England's defense has always been at its best when forcing turnovers to give its offense extra chances. That might not be quite so easy against a Panthers team with a respectable 13 give-aways this season. Possibly getting Aqib Talib and his four interceptions back in the back end of the defense is a bonus, but turnovers are still a tough portion of the game to predict heading toward Monday night.
- Vereen the final piece?** – Though nothing has been made official, all signs point to Shane Vereen being activated from injured reserve and making his return in Carolina. The third-down/passing back had a big opening day before being sidelined with a wrist injury. Following on the comeback track of guys like Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, Vereen is the final piece to return to what was Brady's corps of projected weapons. Vereen also could be a big factor against a solid Panthers front and speedy linebackers. It's easy to envision the Patriots trying to spread out Carolina's defense and getting the ball out of Brady's hands quickly. That could see Vereen not only lined up in the backfield but also out wide. Given the fact that he's been practicing for a couple weeks and that he had an upper body injury that should have allowed him to stay in pretty good shape overall while out of action, expecting Vereen to hit the ground running (and catching) for his offense in Charlotte shouldn't be too much to ask. Finally, we should get the chance to see the real Patriots offense – with all its impressive weapons – working on the field together at the same time. And that comes against the best defense New England has faced this season.
3. Third down battle – Sometimes key matchups compare two strengths. But when it comes to third down in Carolina, it's about a Patriots weakness against a Panthers strength. New England had its best performance of the season on third down against the Steelers before the bye, converting 58-percent of its chances. Still, for the year the Patriots have converted just 34.6 percent of the time on the NFL's money down. Things won't get any easier this week, as the Panthers are allowing opponents to convert just 33.9 percent of third downs this season, sixth best in the NFL. It's a big reason, along with Carolina's running game, that the team has a nearly eight-minute advantage in time of possession through nine games. If the Patriots can't stay on the field it will give Carolina extra chances to get its running game going and stay on the field in its own right. But if Brady and Co. can keep drives alive and then take care of business in the red zone, it could make for an uphill scoring challenge that Cam Newton and Co. may not be ready to compete with.
4. Lines of the times – New England's offensive line has been too inconsistent this season. At times it hasn't been able to control the line of scrimmage or run the ball when needed in key spots. More often, though, the concern has come in the pass protection. Brady has been sacked too many times (26) through nine games. Neither the run blocking nor the pass protection will get any easier in this matchup with a team that offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia called "unbelievably good up front." The rush comes in the form of top defensive end Charles Johnson, who leads Carolina with 8.5 sacks, and his bookend mate Greg Hardy, who has six. But the interior of the group is also a force against the pass and run. Rookie first-round pick Star Lotulelei is a budding, well, star. Dwan Edwards and another rookie, Kawann Short, also make things tough on opposing offenses up the middle. Put it all together and Scar's group has its work cut out for it on the road. That especially true for center Ryan Wendell, who'll likely see a lot of Lotulelei. Carolina expects a lot out of its front four. Can the Patriots five-man line, including Marcus Cannon making his second start of the year at right tackle, deal with that challenge while also getting to the next level to deal with the Panthers speedy, active linebackers? The New England line has gotten its share of criticism through nine games, but the group could certainly prove its mettle and earn big praise with an impressive performance in Charlotte.
5. Run defensive – Now that Jonathan Stewart is back, the Panthers have a stable of rushing options that's as impressive as any in the league. DeAngelo Williams leads the way with 565 yards on 135 carries (4.2 avg.). Newton is obviously a huge factor on the ground with the read-option and his scrambling abilities, which have tallied 268 yards on 62 attempts (4.3 avg.) this season. Bigger-bodied inside runner Mike Tolbert is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry on his 59 attempts, but he does have four touchdowns. Put it all together and it's a lot for New England's fledgling run defense to deal with. Isaac Sopoaga made his Patriots debut against the Steelers, with most of the action coming at nose tackle in 3-4 fronts. That saw rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano work at end. Those tackles also stayed on the field in 4-3 looks. It will be interesting to see if Belichick and Matt Patricia continue to deploy 3-4 fronts with Sopoaga on the field in Carolina on early downs. Regardless of the look, the Patriots need to tighten up a run defense that's had problems in life after Vince Wilfork/Tommy Kelly, allowing more than 5 yards a carry in three of the last four games and more than 150 yards in three of the last five. Sopoaga was brought aboard at the trading deadline to solidify the middle of the defense. This would be a good game against a diverse Panthers rushing attack for him to do just that. It will also be important for ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to set the edge and ensure that neither Williams nor Newton gets the edge to make plays on the perimeter.
- Red zone Rob** – Football math says that 7 always beats 3. The Patriots struggled in the red zone early in the season without Rob Gronkowski. The tight end got into the end zone for the first time this fall prior to the bye against the Steelers. From Brady to rookie receiver Aaron Dobson everyone has been quite vocal about how much Gronkowski opens up the field for those around him on the offense. That's most important in the red zone, just ask the 49ers. San Francisco went 0-for-1 in the red zone last week and kicked three field goals in a 10-9 loss to the Panthers. Carolina has the NFL's No. 3 red zone defense. The Patriots have been on the rise in that area, but remain 19th in red zone offense. The last time the Patriots went on the road against a team with a physical defensive front New England scored just six points on two field goals in a loss in Cincinnati. But the Patriots offense is a beast of a different color with Gronkowski in the mix and making his typical Gronk plays. The Panthers have a couple speedy linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, but the secondary is a bit suspect. Given the breadth of weapons Brady now has to deal with, the passing game should be better overall. But the centerpiece of that aerial attack is still Gronkowski and he may need to carry the load and make plays in the red zone if New England is to get the job done on the road.
This is a measuring stick game – for the Patriots offense and the Panthers defense. Carolina has played suspect competition on the way to ranking in the top five in most defensive categories as the No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL. This prime time battle with all the NFL world a watching is a chance for Sean McDermott's unit to prove itself. Offensively the Patriots remain a question mark more than halfway through the season. The weapons are back to the point that opposing coaches, maybe even New England's own coaches, don't really know what to expect. What does it all mean? Will the Patriots be rested after a week off, or rusty? If it's the latter, that could be a problem against a Panthers team that's outscored opponents 38 to 8 in the first quarter and 103 to 42 in the first half this season. I look for the Patriots to try to spread the Panthers out and get rid of the ball quickly. Still, the Carolina defensive front has the makings to make life tough on Brady. On the other side, I'm worried about the run defense. On paper third down is an advantage for the Panthers. Red zone is an advantage for the Panthers. The people of Carolina will be looking to create a home field advantage for the Panthers. And New England may not have the advantage it generally does in turnovers. Put it all together and I think this could end up with the Patriots losing a third straight game on the road in a hard-fought 23-20 affair.