After a disappointing 1-3 start, including losses to Seattle, Buffalo and Arizona, the Carolina Panthers (6-3) have rattled off five straight victories coming into their Monday night matchup against the New England Patriots.
The Patriots (7-2) are coming off their bye week and figure to have the advantage in bumps and bruises, with the Panthers coming off a hard-fought physical battle with the San Francisco 49ers.
Here is a breakdown of this Week 11 match between two teams vying for playoff byes.
Patriots Offense vs. Panthers Defense
To score points against the Panthers, you have to do it the old-fashioned way: earn it.
The defensive line—consisting of veterans Greg Hardy, Dwan Edwards and Charles Johnson, paired with rookies Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei—has given Carolina the ability to get pressure on quarterbacks while only rushing four. When you back them up with the athletic duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, it becomes too difficult to move the ball.
I believe we'll see the Patriots try to go as fast as they can on offense, attacking the edges and flats with quick screens early, wearing out the big defenders up front. As the game progresses, the Patriots can then try to run the ball directly at a tiring defense, setting up the play-action passing game that has brought Tom Brady such success over the years.
However, if the running game doesn't gain purchase, the offensive line will be called on to pass-block some very large and upset individuals.
Patriots Defense vs. Panthers Offense
Containing Cam Newton isn't an easy task—or tasks in this case. Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had this to say about the extremely multiple Panthers offense in a press conference this week.
I will certainly say that Carolina is very multiple in what they do, and within that they've done a great job of being very balanced. So, they'll run the ball and they'll throw the ball, they can threaten you downfield, they can get the ball out quick, whether it's the three-step passing game… They have great catch-and-run players on the perimeter if they want to throw the ball out and try to get some of their players out in space to be able to make some yardage there, and then obviously their ability to run the ball, both from the running back sets and also from the quarterback and the gun sets, where they can become very multiple in that situation.
I expect the Patriots to employ a bit of a "mush" rush, trying to keep Newton in the pocket and cut down on the improvisation that he is able to perform each week. If they can force him to go through his reads, they might be able to force a mistake.
What They're Saying
In response to a question of whether running back Shane Vereen would return this week after a long absence, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gave some insight on their plans for integrating him back into the fold.
Shane is a good football player. As soon as he is ready and able to help us and we are able to play him, certainly he will have a role in the game. He definitely did make a big impact in game one. I don't know if we can expect him to do that right off the bat in his first game back, whenever that is. We'll look forward to having him back. He is a really good kid, a great teammate and a good football player that can help us. So, we're looking forward to that.
While it may be unrealistic to expect Vereen to step in on day one, the Patriots have missed the dynamic threat in third-down situations. If the Patriots are to have success in the no-huddle offense, Vereen is key.
Tale of the Tape
Tom Brady and his receivers are finally starting to click. Cam Newton has been dynamic and accurate. This is a close competition, but Brady's experience gives him the edge here.
Each team has a diverse group of running backs, each with his own niche. If Shane Vereen were at full speed, I'd give the Patriots a slight edge here, but as this is his first game back, I'm not sure how much he'll be able to contribute.
Aaron Dobson has emerged as a true threat down the field, while Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are still deadly underneath. It remains to be seen whether Tom Brady will have enough time for them to uncover down the field. Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are quietly having good seasons for the Panthers, while Ted Ginn has re-emerged as a deep threat.
Rob Gronkowski is a game-changer at the tight end position. If he isn't catching the ball, he is opening things up for the outside or underneath receivers. If the Panthers don't jam him at the line, they will pay dearly. Greg Olsen is a fine receiver, but he can't match Gronkowski's firepower.
The Panthers and Patriots both have a powerful running game and are able to give their quarterbacks enough time to deliver the ball. Jordan Gross and Nate Solder are two of the top linemen in the league.
While Chandler Jones, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Rob Ninkovich have played admirably for the Patriots, the Panthers just have too much firepower. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei have lived up to their draft hype, and Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are playing like Pro Bowlers. The Patriots offensive line has its work cut out for it Monday night.
Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher have played well with Jerod Mayo on injured reserve, but the Panthers have perhaps the best linebacker in football right now. Luke Kuechly—former Boston College standout—is well known to New Englanders. He and Thomas Davis run fast, hit hard and look like safeties in coverage. Tom Brady will need to be careful targeting the middle of the field against these two.
While Captain Munnerlyn, Quintin Mikell and company have played well behind their dominant front seven, the Patriots defensive backfield—potentially at full-strength—is nothing to take lightly. Devin McCourty and Aqib Talib have each played at an All-Pro level this year.
While both kickers and punters have played well this year, Julian Edelman gives the Patriots an edge in the punt-return game. Ted Ginn is dangerous as well, so Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner will have to be on their toes for the Patriots coverage units.
Overall: Patriots 3-2-4
The tale of the tape gives the Patriots a slight edge this week, but the defensive front seven for the Panthers gives them a big advantage. The offensive line for the Patriots is going to need to play its best game of the year to keep Tom Brady upright.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis
With the Patriots' odd practice schedule due to the Monday night game, there is no official injury report today. That said, there was some injury news to report.
According to Erik Scalavino of Patriots.com, everyone except safety Steve Gregory was spotted at practice on Tuesday. That means that Aqib Talib and Shane Vereen were at least healthy enough to participate to some degree.
While it is still a long way until Monday night, I expect the Patriots to be with their full battery of options—minus Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo of course—at the ready.