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Scouting the Matchup: Defense looks to bounce back

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

When the Carolina defense has been good this season it has started with stopping the run. Carolina held San Francisco to 51 yards rushing in its opener, a 23-3 victory, and limited the Bills to 69 yards on the ground in Week 2. Buffalo picked up 55 of those 69 yards on scrambles by quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The Panthers held Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy to 9 yards on 12 carries. It was the fourth time in McCoy's career that he's failed to rush for at least 10 yards in a game. Carolina allowed 5.5 yards per carry (149 yards on 27 attempts) in last Sunday's loss to the Saints, however. The Patriots aren't lacking quality backs, but some of them, like James White, are more dangerous when they catch the ball than when they take handoffs. Mike Gillislee leads the team in rushing with 145 yards on 45 carries and has yet to establish himself as a consistent threat. Short yardage has also been an issue for the Patriots, and the Panthers won’t make things much easier. Advantage: Panthers

WHEN THE PANTHERS RUN

Much like the Patriots, Carolina's running backs have been doing more damage as pass catchers than on designed running plays this season. Through three games, the Panthers are averaging 3.6 yards per carry. James Stewart is the team's leading rusher with 162 yards on 45 carries. Christian McCaffrey, the eighth pick in this year's draft, is next with 73 yards on 25 attempts. Carolina has run for one touchdown this season, and it came from quarterback Cam Newton. Defending the run has been an issue at times for the Patriots, who are allowing an average of 5.1 yards per carry (391 yards on 76 attempts) and have surrendered two rushing touchdowns through three games. The Texans rushed for 125 yards on 32 carries against the Patriots last Sunday. Expect the Panthers to test the Patriots front, and expect some improvement from the home team. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

The Panthers did not face a top-notch passing attack in either of their first two games, and they held the 49ers and Bills to an average of 136.5 yards through the air. They got a better warmup for Tom Brady and Co. last week when Drew Brees completed 22 of 29 passes for 220 yards and three TDs. Injuries have limited New England's weapons in the passing game, but Tom Brady still has more quality targets than most teams. After a subpar game against Kansas City, Brady bounced back by throwing for 447 yards in a 36-20 victory over New Orleans and 378 yards in a 36-33 win against a good Texans defense last week. The Carolina pass rush is a concern. The Panthers have eight sacks in three games. Old-timer Julius Peppers leads with team with 2.5 sacks. The offensive line must show improvement. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE PANTHERS PASS

You can make a case that pass defense has been New England's biggest problem through three games. The Patriots allowed Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith to pass for 368 yards, surrendered 356 yards to Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 2, and then Houston rookie Deshaun Waston passed for 301 yards in last Sunday's loss to New England. Newton isn't the most accurate passer and hasn't been putting up huge numbers. He has completed 51 of his 83 passes for 566 yards (two TDs, four interceptions). The Patriots will have to pay special attention to 6-5 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (if healthy) when the Panthers are in the red zone. The Panthers suffered a big loss when Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury following their Week 2 victory over Buffalo, and as a result the backs have been heavily involved in the passing game. This should be a week for the beleaguered secondary to bounce back. Advantage: Patriots

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Patriots got a good game from Danny Amendola returning punts last week against the Texans, when he returned two kicks for 53 yards. Dion Lewis is averaging 21.1 yards on 13 kickoff returns. Stephen Gostkowski has made each of his five field goal attempts, but four of those kicks have been between 20 and 29 yards. He also missed a PAT against the Saints. Punter Michael Palardy and gunner Russell Shepard have performed well for the Panthers thus far. Rookie Christian McCaffrey was a dangerous kick returner in college but has yet to show that same big-play ability on punt returns so far this season. The Patriots coverage has been solid as well. Not much to choose between these two teams in the third phase. Advantage: Panthers

OTHER FACTORS

The Patriots took an early right cross to the jaw in the form of their 42-27 loss to Kansas City in Week 1, and they were nearly upset by the Texans at home last week, so you can be sure New England won't be looking past Carolina - or any other team for that matter. Say what you will about how the team performed in last Sunday's 36-33 victory over the Texans, the way they won tends to build confidence and create positive momentum. For those of you who put a lot of meaning into statistics, there's also this: The Patriots have a 49-12 record against NFC opponents since realignment in 2002. That's the best inter-conference record of any NFL team during that span. Advantage: Patriots

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