CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots are both 2-1 heading into Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium, but one team is trending down.
Given the struggles of quarterback Cam Newton and the offense, coupled with a 34-13 home loss to a previously winless New Orleans team a week ago, Carolina is a nine-point underdog to the defending Super Bowl champions.
Here are four things to keep an eye on in the 1 p.m. ET game:
Make or break for Cam: Last week was supposed to be a breakout game for Newton. The 2015 NFL MVP was facing a Saints defense that ranked last in the league, and he was playing at home. Instead, it was a step backward for Newton, who failed to throw a touchdown pass for the second straight week and threw three interceptions, two when he wasn’t pressured. Now he’s facing a New England defense that is ranked last in the NFL and that gives up 461 yards and 31.7 points per game. If Newton can’t take advantage of the Patriots, he could be in for a long year. Fantasy Football League owners already are dropping him.
Breakout for McCaffrey: This may be the worst -- and slowest -- group of linebackers New England has had in a decade. Panthers first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey had a breakout game against New Orleans with 101 yards receiving, so he has a chance again for big plays underneath against a defense that is giving up 330.7 passing yards per game. Yes, that’s last in the league. McCaffrey also should have opportunities to break out in the running game -- where he’s done little -- against a unit that is giving up an average of 130.3 yards rushing (26th). Carolina will need big plays from McCaffrey in what could be a track meet.
Defense needs breaks: The Carolina defense has one interception in three games. It has no takeaways in the past two games after turning two into touchdowns in the opener. If the Panthers hope to slow down QB Tom Brady, who threw five touchdown passes in New England's win against Houston last week, they have to force turnovers. That’s a tall order against Brady, who has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in three games. It’s a tall order in general against a New England offense that hasn’t lost a fumble this season. The Panthers will be without starting cornerback Daryl Worley (knee), which further complicates things.
Breaking a bad habit: The Panthers have been dreadful in the red zone, tied for last in the league with a 25 percent touchdown success rate. They are efficient at getting to the red zone, ranking second in the NFL in time of possession with 34:01 per game. But they have to finish off drives, particularly against a Patriots defense that gave up 301 passing yards and two touchdowns to Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson a week ago. This may be the time for Newton to run more than he has in the first three games. Watson had 41 rushing yards on eight carries against the Pats. The Panthers are 29-9-1 and have averaged 27.5 points when Newton has at least eight non-kneel-down rushes per game. The record drops to 32-33 with an average of 22.7 points per game when Newton has seven or fewer non-kneel-down runs.