Jamie Collins vs. Greg Olsen
While most eyes will be on Darrelle Revis against first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin, that's not necessarily the most important matchup. In truth, it would be shocking if Revis did not win that matchup against the immensely talented yet raw rookie.
Instead, Collins vs. Olsen is a matchup that could have more important long-term ramifications. Collins has the potential to be a disruptive chess piece, one capable of blitzing effectively as well as covering tight ends. Collins has played just 18 snaps in the preseason (all against the Eagles), so Friday will be his only extended live opportunity to show how his coverage has progressed.
Olsen remains a difficult matchup and perhaps the top target in the Panthers passing game this season. Last season, the 29-year-old had a career-high 73 receptions, including five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots last season. Safety Duron Harmon generally drew the Olsen assignment in 2013, but considering his success against the likes of Coby Fleener and Dennis Pitta, look for Collins to draw these tough assignments more frequently in 2014.
Nate Solder vs. Greg Hardy
After prolonged struggles against Washington, Solder bounced back against the Eagles, highlighted by a plus-1.2 pass protection grade. Going against one of the league's premier pass-rushers, a repeat performance from Solder could extinguish whatever lingering concerns may remain.
One of Solder's worst games in 2013 came against Carolina, as his minus-2.1 overall grade was his second-lowest mark of the season. Most of those troubles came on the ground, but he did concede two hurries and a sack.
It's unclear when or how long Hardy will play, as he faces a looming suspension for his domestic abuse charges. The All-Pro's absence could be lengthy considering the public backlash to Ray Rice's suspension, so perhaps Carolina would consider preparing someone like Kony Ealy or Mario Addison for an increased role at the start of the year. That wouldn't benefit Solder, so he and the Pats surely hope to see plenty of Hardy.
Offensive X-Factor: Danny Amendola
Carolina's front seven will create problems, so it is imperative that the Patriots wide receivers win quickly off the line to ensure that Brady does not take a preseason beating. Amendola, who has lined up exclusively in the slot this summer, figures to have the biggest advantage against either Charles Godfrey or rookie Bene Benwikere.
The 28-year-old Godfrey is a converted safety coming off a torn Achilles that ended his 2013 campaign after just two games. The transition has been tough so far, as his minus-2.0 coverage grade through two games is the worst on the Panthers roster. Benwikere has held his own, but the fifth-rounder is still adjusting to the tougher competition after playing collegiately at San Jose State.
Amendola had just a single reception against the Eagles, but throughout training camp, he has demonstrated the same rapport with Brady that he flashed last summer. The slot receiver has always provided Brady a safety blanket under pressure, so look for Amendola to have a big game against overmatched corners.
Defensive X-Factor: Vince Wilfork
In a league dominated by timing-oriented spread passing concepts, the Panthers offense is an anachronism. On a per-play basis, only four teams ran the ball more frequently than the Panthers last season. Eschewing multi-receiver base sets, the Panthers will often come out with a power back like DeAngelo Williams, a fullback in Mike Tolbert and a pair of solid blocking tight ends in Olsen and Ed Dickson.
Thus, Wilfork will be critical towards preserving interior stability. The 32-year-old has appeared pleasantly spry in his return from Achilles surgery, playing 28 snaps over the first two games. While Wilfork's days as the rare three-down nose tackle are likely over, he is still vital for opponents like the Panthers.
For Wilfork, this final tune-up holds more urgency than one might assume. Within the first five weeks, the Pats will face four run-oriented, under-center offenses in Minnesota, Oakland, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Wilfork will be critical in all of those contests, so it is important that he knocks off the rust before the Pats need him.