There is little question New England has a better offense and defense than its Week 17 opponent, Carolina. However, where the Panthers hold a decent-sized edged is in special teams, where they will send two individuals to the Pro Bowl.
Punter Todd Sauerbrun and kick returner Steve Smith are the best in the league at what they do. If there is an area of concern for the Patriots this weekend, it is the kicking game. While the Carolina offense will be depleted thanks to injuries to wide receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Isaac Byrd and tight end Wesley Walls, the special teams units are still capable of keeping the Panthers in the game.
In the punting game, Sauerbrun is putting up numbers that haven't been matched in quite some time. He leads the league in both net average (39.2 yards per punt) and gross average (47.5 yards per punt). If he maintains the latter number through the Patriots game, it would be the highest gross average since Detroit's Dale Lary averaged 48.9 yards per punt way back in 1963.
A breakdown of Sauerbrun's kicks are impressive to digest. On the season he has 57 punts of 50 yards or more; 17 of 60 or more; and five of 70 yards or more. At one point he had a streak of nine games with at least one punt of at least 60 yards.
As capable as Sauerbrun is of booming the ball, he is also capable of placing the ball well. He is second in the league with 33 punts inside the 20-yard line, a number that broke current Patriot Ken Walter's Carolina team record.
New England Head Coach Bill Belichick reiterated Friday that his team has spent extra time working in the kicking this week. Keeping that aspect of the game will be important for New England as it aims for its first division crown since 1997.
"They have the best punter in the league, they have the best returner and [John] Kasay is an excellent field goal kicker," Belichick said. "They are well coached, they have good core players on special teams guys like [Kory] Minor, [Jarrod] Cooper and [Dean] Wells. They have really good specialists all the way through.
"They make a lot of big plays in the kicking game. They cover well, they return well and they kick the ball well. I think that is their number one strength. They are as good as anybody in the league in special teams, I think Philadelphia is ranked ahead of them, but that is really about it."
As strong as Sauerbrun is with the punting, he can't put points on the board for Carolina. The same is not true for Smith, the dynamic rookie. He has two kick returns and a punt return for touchdowns this year. Smith has followed the strong return tradition in Carolina, carrying the torch for departed Michael Bates.
If Smith can get 146 kickoff return yards this Sunday, he'll break Bates' team mark of 1,480 for a single season. On the year he leads the league with his 26.7 yard average on 50 returns. He had a 93-yard touchdown return on the first kickoff of the season against Minnesota and added a 99-yarder against St. Louis in November.
Smith is equally dangerous with punts. His has taken 31 punts back for 355 yards, including a 70-yarder for a touchdown. Despite not scoring a touchdown in the regular offense, Smith is still third in touchdowns for Carolina with three. Only Walls (five) and quarterback Chris Weinke, with a team-high six rushing touchdowns, have reached the end zone more often than Smith.
Going for Title VI
Down the road, the Patriots are hoping the third time is the charm, as the Super Bowl will be held in New Orleans this season. Both of New England's NFL title game appearances have been there, but before the Patriots can entertain of a third Super Bowl shot, they will be hoping that six is their magic number.
With a victory over Carolina, New England would clinch the sixth division title in franchise history. The Patriots won the NFL AFC East in 1997, 1996, 1986 and 1978, and they took the AFL East in 1963. A win would also tie the team record for regular season victories at 11, and would be the sixth time that number has been reached.
Finally, an 11-5 record would also make for a six-game improvement over last year's 5-11 slate. It would be the biggest single-season turnaround for the Patriots since they followed a 3-11 campaign in 1975 with an 11-3 record in 1976.
Currently with 95 catches, wide receiver Troy Brown needs just two catches against the Panthers to claim the Patriots single-season reception record for his own. He has gone 25 consecutive games with at least two catches, which he has managed in 35 of the last 38 games… New England added running back Antowain Smith to the injury report as probable with a leg problem late Friday afternoon. He is the only player on the list... Brown and special teams standout Larry Izzo are alternates for the Pro Bowl… With a monster scoring game, kicker Adam Vinatieri could pass John Smith for second place on the New England scoring list. Vinatieri currently trails Smith by 12 points (692-680).