Monday night is going to be huge. If you have skin in the game because you're a Patriots fan or a Panthers fan, then you likely feel a twinge of anxiety along with your normal anticipation of a Monday-night brawl. This is an important game and both sides know it. This will be a defining moment for one of these ball clubs.
For the Patriots and Patriot Nation, this will be a test, both of a challenging and necessary nature. We need to know what we're dealing with here. Are the Patriots a Super Bowl team? Are they a one-and-done team? Who the heck are these guys, really?
Monday night's game feels like an exam that will ultimately reveal key answers, similar to the Patriots' duels with the Falcons and Saints, where the final few minutes of those respective games told us a lot about what this team is made of.
In short, a win over quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers would solidify the Patriots as a true Super Bowl contender, even with all their injuries and inexperience at receiver.
But beating the Panthers is easier said than done.
Carolina (6-3) is riding high on a five-game winning streak. Stopping them means stopping Newton and his offense, which, at times, can be utterly electric.
Cam Newton is one of the most athletically gifted quarterbacks in the NFL. He's a physical monster at 6'5" and 250 pounds. Like Steelers slinger Ben Roethlisberger, Newton defies the typical image of a scrawny, immobile, statuesque quarterback.
But, while Roethlisberger uses his unusual size to scramble and extend broken plays, Newton makes every play (even the broken ones) seem like it was drawn up exactly the way it unfolded. The power of his arm, his legs and his swagger makes him something of a magician out there on the field, in which virtually nothing he does seems like a mistake.
But every quarterback has an Achilles' heel. For Newton, it's his emotions.
He's been plagued by questions of leadership and maturity throughout his young career.
Those concerns have some merit.
All last year, while the Panthers struggled (ultimately finishing at 7-9), Newton's knack for sulking on the sideline and giving dejected post-game interviews was highly dissected and critiqued. After a while, it gave Newton the aura of someone who was so upset with losing, he either didn't care anymore or he didn't know how to care in a way that was beneficial to the team's progress.
And truthfully, every time they cut to him on the sideline or in a post-game interview and you saw his despondency and his detachment, it really didn't look like he had the character to lead a franchise.
To some extent, that's changed this season.
Newton has emerged as a more capable leader. He's interacting more with his players in the locker room and on the field. Newton himself summed it up best in this video interview with Fox Sports, where he candidly explains how he's evolved as a player and as a man this season:
Making eye contact with people [is important to me now]. Talking to people. Just being approachable.
I could sit here and list a scroll of things that I try to do on a day to day basis. Do I have setbacks where I need to detox and [get away and blow off steam, yes I do].
[But] I am [now] able to catch myself and say, "Get out of this funk. Let me go talk to people, let me go talk to people and tell them how I'm really feeling." Rather than them playing a guessing game and saying, "Oh, can I talk to Cam today? Can I not?"
Another big reason for Newton's development, aside from his growth as a man, is that Carolina has stopped putting all of their eggs in his basket. They no longer give him the ball and block for him and just say, "Whatever Cam does, he does, we'll live with the results."
Of course, Carolina can fall back on Newton's high-powered legs whenever it's necessary. But for the most part, Carolina has wisely lifted the pressure off Newton's shoulders by investing in more offensive areas and asking other guys to step up.
This year, Carolina upped the ante all around. They've committed to the run game with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. They've committed to receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who's been a monster on return duties. And of course, wide receiver Steve Smith is a beast.
This has allowed Newton to explore his own abilities and flourish in other aspects of his game. In many ways, it's allowed him to get more comfortable with the basic fundamentals of the position.
He's become a more complete quarterback, fitting balls through tight windows and excelling on third down. He's taken serious steps forward, becoming a solid game manager and upping his football IQ. He's allowed the basics of the game to catch up with all the things he does at a superhuman level.
And now, the Patriots have to beat him.
To understand how to beat Newton, we need to look at him and his team in the proper context.
Yes, Newton's a good leader and the Panthers are a fantastic team, but we've only been saying that for about five weeks or so. That's a short amount of time. Before this victorious five-game stretch, it was a different story.
When they began this season at 0-2, they looked like the same old Panthers.
Prior to their matchup with the Giants in Week 3, there was more talk about Newton's inability to grow. After they massacred the Giants, they ate a slice of humble pie when they got hammered by the Cardinals. After those four games, Newton had already thrown a total of five picks. It seemed like neither he, nor Coach Ron Rivera, had control of the ship.
Ever since then, they've been clicking and Newton's been gaining steam as a changed man. But again, we need to keep it in context and remember that all of this success is new. Five games tells us nothing.
Come Tuesday morning, when the dust has settled and if the Panthers win, the media will be saying, "The Panthers are for real!" And if they lose, they'll be saying, "The Panthers show familiar signs of worry."
A team of such immediate and polar responses lives on dangerous ground.
Some quarterbacks and teams, like Eli Manning and the New York Giants, are totally comfortable living on that type of ground. Whether Newton and the Panthers can stomach that same lifestyle remains to be seen. It's a hard road to travel; teams need to have thick skin and be slightly demented to live in that sort of environment and believe that everything will be fine.
At the end of the day, Newton remains the heart and soul of that offense, even more than Steve Smith. And the best way to knock out Newton is to attack his Achilles' heel: His emotions, of course.
The Patriots need to rush him, sack him and frustrate him at the line of scrimmage.
It's all psychological. If New England's pass rush can stymie Newton and tempt him into regression from an emotional standpoint, there will be a team-wide, top-down slip in which the 2013 Panthers become the 2012 Panthers. That's what the Patriots want.
In essence, the Patriots need to checkmate Newton into a temper tantrum. They need to lure him into regressing, into hitting a familiar emotional wall. Newton's too good to make it a permanent slip, but the Patriots only need it to happen for a night.
Tom Brady can't inflict the regression, but defensive end Chandler Jones (8.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits) and defensive tackle Chris Jones (five sacks, six quarterback hits) can most certainly do it.
Look for defensive end Rob Ninkovich (three sacks, eight hits) and defensive tackle Joe Vellano (one sack, two hits) to step up.
And also, keep an eye out for cornerback Logan Ryan. In addition to being something of a ballhawk-in-training, he also notched 1.5 sacks on the Dolphins this season. Don't be surprised to see him get some contact on Newton on Monday night.
Newton is talented beyond belief, but remember: He's a showman; showmen often have thin skin. It's the nature of the persona.
For coach Bill Belichick, the master of situational football and preparing to make the opponent's best player invisible, the name of the game is clawing at Newton's thin skin. Attack him. Force him to look into the abyss. Force him to see how much growth he's really made.
With Newton, it's all mental. The more physical it gets, the more psychological it becomes.