New England versus Carolina looked like a prime-time bust two months ago. Could it now be a Super Bowl preview?
The Panthers (6-3) have won five straight games and six of their past seven after an 0-2 start to emerge as a contender in the NFC. New England (7-2), as usual, is one of the top teams in the AFC.
There hasn't been a game of this magnitude between these teams since they met in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2003 season. New England won that one 32-29 on a last-second field goal.
Panthers team reporter David Newton and Patriots team reporter Mike Reiss are here to break down this "Monday Night Football" matchup in Charlotte, N.C.:
Newton: Mike, New England will have had 15 days to prepare for Carolina. Does that give the Patriots an advantage?
Reiss: The Patriots have been excellent in games after the bye under coach Bill Belichick, with a 10-3 record. The main thing the bye did for New England was allow more time to heal for some banged-up difference-making players, such as cornerback Aqib Talib, who has missed the past 3½ games with a hip injury. Belichick gave the players six straight days off, which is a bit rare but was a reward after 13 straight weeks of games going back to the preseason.
As it relates to the Panthers, the big question many in New England have is how much of their success is a result of their pre-49ers-game schedule. How do you assess it?
Newton: Yeah, the first five wins did come against teams that didn't have winning records. But the key is the Panthers didn't just slip past those teams. They beat them by 15 or more points, averaging more than 30 points a game. What beating up on down teams did was allow a Carolina team that hadn't had a winning record since 2008 time to grow confidence -- particularly on offense.
The defense has played well enough to win every game, and that is the one constant that makes this team dangerous every week. Sunday's 10-9 victory at San Francisco was no fluke, and it should quiet the critics of the schedule that, ironically, was rated the toughest in the league before the season. Speaking of the Carolina defense, it ranks second in the league against the run. How will a New England team that is using the run more attack it?
Reiss: Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels often talk about having an identity as a game-plan offense, meaning they morph their approach weekly to hit at what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. So if they view the Panthers' front seven as a strength, and it sure looks like it to many, I don't think they'll just run it for the sake of running it. They instead would attempt to spread things out a bit and possibly use the short passing game as an extension of the running game while picking their spots in the running game to maintain some semblance of balance. The potential return of running back Shane Vereen (wrist), who is eligible to come off the injured reserve/designated to return list, would be a boost as he is a versatile option as a rusher and a pass-catcher. How do you think the Panthers will approach things offensively?
Newton: They won't change much, if anything. Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula are committed to the run. They keep coming at you with fresh backs -- DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart -- and a dose of quarterback Cam Newton running and throwing. They're best when Newton is hitting the short passes and making quick decisions. It's all about consistency and keeping the chains moving, which is why they lead the league in time of possession. If the Patriots commit to keeping Newton in the pocket, that could open up the edges for short passes to the backs.
Speaking of consistency, I see Tom Brady's completion percentage is below 60 percent for the first time in his career. What's happening there?
Reiss: The hallmarks of Brady's play over 13 seasons (not including his rookie 2000 campaign) have been accuracy and decision-making. Those have been a bit sporadic this season, for a variety of reasons -- Brady himself, all the changes around him and injuries.
But, for the first time this season, it all came together in the 55-31 win over the Steelers on Nov. 3, which was the Patriots' most recent game. They scored seven touchdowns, and six came out of different personnel groupings and we saw the impact of what tight end Rob Gronkowski (three games played this season, averaging 44 snaps per game) rounding into form means to this offense.
While we're focusing on the quarterback of the Patriots' offense, I wanted to ask you about the "quarterback" of the Panthers' defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly, because many in New England are familiar with him from his time at Boston College. A star in the making?
Newton: No. He already is a star. He proved that last season when he was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He's not having to make as many tackles this year because the front line is much improved and is stopping many plays before they get to him. But the St. Louis game tells you all you need to know. The Rams revamped their blocking scheme from what they had done all season to account for Kuechly. When teams devise a game plan for you, you've arrived. Kuechly is the heart of this defense not only in that he makes plays but also because he plays without an ego. His unselfishness spills over onto the rest of this defense, which has helped create the chemistry that makes the Panthers effective.
Back to the quarterback on offense: How have the Patriots fared against mobile quarterbacks such as Newton?
Reiss: They've seen their fair share of mobile quarterbacks this year, with EJ Manuel (Bills), Geno Smith (Jets) and Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) most notable, and one would think the plan against Newton will be the same as it was against them: Keep him in the pocket and see whether he can beat you from there.
Belichick was miked up in the Steelers game, and that strategy was the theme of the clip shown on NFL.com -- he kept stressing the importance of keeping Roethlisberger in the pocket. So, rush-lane integrity, particularly from ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter, likely will be a crucial part of the New England plan.
Those quarterback scrambles can be backbreakers, sort of like a special-teams return that swings momentum. I've noticed a few of those from Ted Ginn this year, and, given some Patriots coverage struggles of late, I'd imagine the Pats are concerned about him.
Newton: The Panthers added a small wrinkle to their return game this past Sunday in the positioning of a second deep man for blocking, and Ginn averaged more than 21 yards per punt return. He almost broke a couple. But where I believe Ginn is a bigger threat to New England is as a receiver. He didn't get deep against San Francisco, but he has really become a threat, not only on the go route but on the slant and on short passes in the flat. He has the speed to blow past defenders and has shown the ability to catch passes in traffic, something he hasn't done before. If the Patriots stack the defense to stop the run, he could be a game-changer.