The NFL schedule-makers gave us a couple of great prime-time matchups for Week 11. Following Sunday night's 27-17 Denver Broncos win over the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, the New England Patriots (7-2) and Carolina Panthers (6-3) will do battle on Monday Night Football.
While most expected the Patriots to be at the top of the AFC East, Carolina's resurgence has been one of football's most compelling storylines.
Let's take a look at keys for both teams heading into this high-profile contest.
Patriots Offense vs. Panthers Defense
Through the first eight games of the season, Tom Brady wasn't his usual prolific self. Sure, the Patriots were still winning, but he didn't post a single game with at least two touchdowns. But with tight end Rob Gronkowski returning in Week 7 after recovering from multiple offseason surgeries, Brady and the offense have picked up steam.
The quarterback exploded in Week 9 by going 23-of-33 for 432 yards and four touchdowns, aided by big days from Gronkowski (nine catches, 143 yards, one TD) and Danny Amendola (four catches, 122 yards, one TD). It resulted in a 55-31 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the Patriots scoring 25 more points than their previous season high of 30.
For the Monday Night Football matchup against the Panthers, New England is expected to welcome Shane Vereen back to the lineup, per ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Vereen hasn't played since Week 1, when he carried the ball 14 times for 101 yards while adding seven catches for 58 yards. Brady must be eager to step on the field with Vereen, Gronkowski and Amendola in the lineup together for the first time all year.
But the Panthers have evolved into the league's stingiest defense in their third year under head coach Ron Rivera.
After Peyton Manning and the Broncos hung 27 points on the Chiefs Sunday night in a 10-point victory, the Panthers now rank No. 1 in NFL scoring defense (12.8 points allowed per game) and total defense (283.3 yards per game).
Linebacker Luke Kuechly has emerged as a leader in his second year, while defensive ends Charles Johnson (8.5 sacks) and Greg Hardy (6.0 sacks) create one of the best bookend tandems in football. As Pete Prisco of CBS Sports noted, the Panthers secondary has just one starter who was first-stringer for them in 2012, corner Captain Munnerlyn.
The strength of the Panthers defense has been the front seven, but the team has fared well against both the run (No. 3, 82 yards allowed per game) and the pass (No. 4, 201.3 yards allowed per game) this year. Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News even went so far as to compare the unit to the historically great 1985 Chicago Bears defense, but let's get through a full season first.
With the way the Patriots looked against the Steelers in Week 9, the Panthers might need to play at a championship level to keep up.
Panthers Offense vs. Patriots Defense
Carolina's impressive victory last week was a close 10-9 affair in San Francisco, but each of the previous four wins on the Panthers' current five-game winning streak featured at least 30 points from the offense.
With the potentially robust Patriots on the other sideline, Cam Newton and the Panthers will likely have to put up some decent points on the board if they want to win at home. Newton hasn't posted spectacular numbers during the current winning streak, with his single-game high being 249 yards, but he's been efficient with 10 touchdowns (three rushing) against three interceptions.
Carolina's running game received a boost in recent weeks with the addition of Jonathan Stewart, who has split carries the past two games with DeAngelo Williams. With the Patriots ranking 29th in rush defense (128.2 yards per game), the Panthers should try to keep it on the ground and keep Brady on the sidelines.
Not to mention the Patriots secondary is expected to receive a boost from cornerback Aqib Talib, per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald:
Talib has missed the past three contests with a hip injury but was looking like an elite cornerback to start the year. His imminent return is great news for a group that will be without starting free safety Steve Gregory and corner Alfonzo Dennard, according to Doug Kyed of NESN.com.
Talib is expected to match up with top Panthers wideout Steve Smith, a familiar ex-division foe in the NFC South during his days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Levan Reid of CBS Boston shared stats of Talib's success against Smith in the past:
Smith recently spoke to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and said he's looking forward to the challenge:
"I expect a very physical game," Smith said. "He's long and lanky. He's a guy who's physical, who likes to play press coverage. You've got to be patient understanding the press. I expect him to play, we've had a long battle in Tampa Bay, I wouldn't expect anything less from a guy like that he's highly competitive and he wants to win just like I do."
Smith has been Newton's leading receiver (42 catches, 450 yards, three TDs), in a well-rounded offense that features four different players with at least 386 yards receiving. Smith is joined by tight end Greg Olsen (35 catches, 440 yards, three TDs), receiver Brandon LaFell (31 catches, 400 yards, three TDs) and wideout Ted Ginn Jr. (23 catches, 386 yards, two TDs).
Look for the Panthers to try to control time of possession with their run game and quick-strike offense. The best way to limit Brady is to keep him on the sidelines.