Pats again a measuring stick for Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New England Patriots are on a run of 13 consecutive winning seasons and 11 straight in which they've won at least 10 games. They have finished first in the AFC East the past five seasons and in 10 of the last 11.

They have won three Super Bowls and been to six between 2001 and the present.

The Carolina Panthers haven't had consecutive winning seasons since they began playing in 1995.

And yet fourth-year coach Ron Rivera believes they are on the doorstep of becoming what the Patriots are.

"We could be a year away," Rivera said as the Panthers prepared for Friday's preseason game at New England. "If we can come back, have a good year, do some things that haven't been done before, we can set ourselves up as we continue to move forward with a group of young men.

"We're on the cusp, and this year will tell a lot for the direction we are headed."

He's right in that this season will say a lot in regards to where the Panthers are heading. Quarterback Cam Newton isn't Tom Brady, but he is a player a team can build around as New England has with the nine-time Pro Bowl selection.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, gives Carolina a strong nucleus on the other side of the ball.

There is a foundation.

But the Panthers are far from being in New England's stratosphere. So is every other team in the NFL, for that matter.

That's why the Patriots are the measuring stick for most of the league. They certainly are for Rivera.

"You think about coach [Bill] Belichick and Tom Brady and their consistency," Rivera said. "I've always used them as a measuring stick and I've always compared to what we want to do to defensively to what they do offensively.

"Now as a team, you want to compare the whole team."

The Patriots were a big measuring stick for the Panthers last season. A 24-20 victory over New England on "Monday Night Football" following a win at San Francisco showed Carolina was a playoff contender.

It showed that Newton was a bona fide rising star after he successfully directed the game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes against a Super Bowl-caliber team.

"It sent a great message to the rest of the team, we are most certainly relevant because we beat one of the elite teams,'' Rivera said.

New England also was a measuring stick for Carolina in the 2003 season when they met in the Super Bowl. The Patriots won 32-29 on a last-second field goal, giving the Carolina organization hope it was close to championship form.

It didn't happen. The Panthers went 7-9 the following season while New England went on to a second straight Super Bowl victory.

Tonight's third exhibition game won't have the ramifications of a Super Bowl, but it again will be a measuring stick. The Patriots are among the favorites to win another title. The Panthers are predicted to take a hard fall from last season's 12-4 record.

So while it is starters versus starters for the first half, despite little game-planning by either side, it will give Rivera a hint of where the Panthers are in terms of sustaining success.

It will be another opportunity for Newton to prove he can win with a new group of wide receivers just as Brady has. It will be another opportunity for the defense, ranked second in the league a year ago, to prove it remains championship caliber.

It may just be an exhibition game, but because it's New England it will hold a little more significance than others.

"What I mean by a year away, this year will tell,'' Rivera said as he continued to explain why he believes the Panthers are close to becoming a New England-type team. "If we go out and do the things we're capable of, play to our abilities and do some things that haven't been done before in this division and for this team, then I think we're where we want to be.''