A big game on Monday night between two good teams deserves a little extra attention. Let’s take a closer look at the Panthers and the Patriots.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
These two teams aren’t battling one another for playoff position, but both are in the midst of a late-season push for the postseason. As usual, the Patriots have a substantial lead in the AFC East, leading by three games in the loss column, and a win tonight would make it hard to imagine them not winning the division once again.
As for the Panthers, they need a win to stay one game behind the Saints in the NFC South, keeping alive hope that they can win the division this season with two games against New Orleans left on the schedule. A win would also put Carolina in sole possession of the top wildcard spot in the NFC with six weeks left to play. However, a loss would put them two games back in the division and in a four-way tie for the NFC’s two wildcard spots. If sense of urgency means anything, the Panthers definitely need this game more than the Patriots.
CAROLINA OFFENSE VS. NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE
The Patriots have struggled to stop the run all season, even against teams that usually don’t run the ball well, and that could be a problem for them against the Panthers, who have a top-10 rushing attack. Not only have the Panthers received steady production this season from DeAngelo Williams, but also Jonathan Stewart has been a nice addition to the backfield the past couple of weeks, and on top of that quarterback Cam Newton can be dangerous when he leaves the pocket. New England’s defensive end duo of Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones need to keep Newton in the pocket and force him to move the ball with his arm. Of course, at the same time, New England’s linebackers will have to slow down Carolina’s running backs. Newton has been more effective throwing the ball over the past month, but Carolina still has an underwhelming set of receivers and with Aqib Talib coming back from injury, the Patriots should be able to take away whichever receiver they feel is the most threatening, which could make it tough for Newton to make plays in the passing game, although that will only matter if the Patriots can slow down the Carolina rushing attack.
NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE VS. CAROLINA DEFENSE
Before their bye week, the Patriots put up their best offensive effort of the season, scoring 55 points against the Steelers, with Tom Brady throwing for over 400 yards and four touchdowns while three different receivers had over 100 yards receiving for the game. New England is as healthy as they’re going to get on the offensive side of the ball, and they look like they’re finally starting to gel as a unit. That being said, they haven’t faced a defense like the one they’ll face in Carolina. The Panthers boast a defense that’s top-5 in the NFL against both the run and the pass, giving them a defense with few weaknesses that will be difficult for even Brady to figure out. Carolina hasn’t allowed more than 15 points since week 6 against the Cardinals, which is the last game they lost. Even with all of their personnel available to them, an extra week to prepare, and a lot of momentum riding over from their 55-point outburst against Pittsburgh, the Patriots will have to execute to perfection in order to consistently move the ball and score points against Carolina’s defense.
This looks like it’ll be a defensive battle. Despite the Patriots exploding on offense in their last game, things won’t come so easy against Carolina’s defense. The Panthers should be able to keep New England’s offense under wraps and they should be able to control the ball with their running game. For the second straight week, the Panthers will win a close game against a quality team because of a strong defensive effort: Carolina 20, New England 16.