It is always fun to retrace steps when a situation like next week's arises -- Patriots at Panthers on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."
When the NFL's schedule was released in April, this is what I wrote: "The Patriots play one Monday night game, at Carolina, and who had that one picked for prime time?"
It seemed like an outlier. Why the Panthers?
As it turns out, it might be ESPN's best game to date -- the 7-2 Patriots against the 6-3 Panthers, who have won five straight.
That reflects, in part, what many of us love about the NFL. Every team has a chance to turn it around, and now we have an exciting matchup to look forward to.
Let's get to the questions.
Q. Hey Mike, when I think about the Patriots' next matchup, against the Panthers, it reminds me of last year's game against the Texans. Both teams were having surprisingly good seasons, and the consensus was that they had taken the next step. But last year, on "Monday Night Football," Tom Brady and the Pats showed everyone who the Texans really were. I'm having the same feeling about this game. Your thoughts? -- Spencer (Maryland)
A. Spencer, I love the matchup and think Carolina is one of the nice stories of the 2013 season. General manager Dave Gettleman has done a solid job in sort of the old-fashioned way -- pure scouting, no-frills, keep it simple and build that foundation and focus on the fundamentals. Carolina is a very good situational team -- red zone, third down, etc. At the same time, it's going to be hard for me to go against Tom Brady on the Monday night stage, especially coming off the bye. The Carolina defense looks tough, but I don't think they've seen a quarterback of Brady's caliber.
Q. If the Patriots had thought at all about taking the Panthers lightly due to their soft schedule, their win over the 49ers should be a real wake-up that this team is for real. For me this feels like a measuring stick type of game for the Patriots, because from what I know of the Panthers it feels like a bad matchup for the Pats -- strong running game against our depleted interior, and a DL that can dominate without a lot of help. That combination is usually a killer, especially if they rattle Brady early. What do you expect the Pats to do schematically to counter these potential mismatches against the Panthers? -- Alex (Wakefield, Mass.)
A. Alex, the first thought I have is that I don't know how this Patriots team could overlook anyone after what we've seen through the first nine games of the season. But I do think that Carolina was very impressive against the 49ers and the unexpected win reflects favorably on their team. On your other point, I understand the line of thinking of a bad matchup when it comes to the four-man rush and running game, as those areas have hurt the Patriots in the past, but there's a lot more that goes into determining the outcome. I could see the Patriots softening up the Panthers' front seven with some spread/empty formations. Defensively, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga could become a key player as this could be a game played mostly in the base defense.
Q. What are your thoughts on the Panthers' record and league rankings when considering the opponents? "You are what you are" is true, but I don't think that is the case with the Panthers. They have played some really terrible teams with pathetic offenses. -- Josh L. (Dedham)
A. Josh, I might have been more inclined to agree prior to this past Sunday, when they went into San Francisco and posted a 10-9 victory. I thought they were coming out of there with a loss. To me, that win warrants respect. From a winning percentage standpoint, they did have the league's "easiest" schedule through the first nine weeks of the season. But as we know, that doesn't mean too much. Anyone can beat anyone and it's all about the individual matchup. I'd take these Panthers seriously.
Q. Can the Patriots beat the Broncos in Week 12? -- Naman (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Naman, prior to the Patriots' 55-point output on Nov. 3 against the Steelers, I might have had some doubts. But that offensive explosion was the final piece I needed to see to know what this team is capable of, so yes, they can beat the Broncos on Nov. 24.
Q. Mike, the Pats are missing 10 key starters. What could possibly make anyone think that they can overcome that? They will not win a playoff game. Btw, I'm a big Pats fan but this season is over. -- Steve (Boston)
A. Steve, you may be right in the end, but I don't think we need to write the ending of the story while we're in the middle of the book. Part of life's enjoyment is embracing the journey. The AFC is wide open as I see it.
Q. I want to point out an example as to why it is usually better to count on young players and develop them rather than going out and making the newsworthy signing, something that you've sometimes pointed out in the mailbag. In the offseason, the 49ers went out and added Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency and drafted CB Marcus Cooper in the seventh round. At the conclusion of training camp it was between the two of them for the final cornerback spot on the team, and the organization went with Asomugha, which now looks like a poor decision. They released Cooper, likely hoping to sign him to the practice squad if he cleared waivers, and are now paying the price for that decision. The Chiefs claimed Cooper and he is looking like a serious consideration for defensive rookie of the year. The worst part of this story might be that Cooper went to Rutgers. And we have three rookie defensive backs from Rutgers in our organization right now. Oh what could have been! -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)
A. LOL Ramin. The Patriots actually attempted to claim Cooper when he was waived by the 49ers but didn't have priority over the Chiefs at the time. Bill Belichick talks about this quite a bit -- sometimes the younger player isn't at the same level initially as the veteran, but you have to project improvement and upside. Cooper looks like a swing-and-a-miss by the 49ers in that area.
Q. It is remarkable how much better the defensive backfield is with Aqib Talib, and I agree that he is the best CB that we've seen since Ty Law. But what is it that makes him so much better? -- Fletch (New Hampshire)
A. Fletch, it's the combination of everything -- size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), physicality, athleticism, instincts, ball skills, work ethic and presence. Players like that are rare. Talib has a lot of things going for him as long as he stays healthy.
Q. Mike, who do you think will be cut when Shane Vereen comes back to the team? -- David (North Attleborough)
A. David, a few players who have practice squad eligibility could be candidates, such as defensive end Jake Bequette, guard Josh Kline or defensive tackle Marcus Forston. I'd put running back Leon Washington as an outside possibility, as it will be interesting to see how his value is viewed upon his return to health (is he just a kickoff returner?).
Q. Hi Mike. After the signing of LaQuan Williams, it seems to me the Patriots have no less than five players on their roster who are unlikely to ever be better than emergency options on offense/defense: Williams, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson and Chris White. Now, obviously you do need people to play on special teams, but, considering the strict roster and salary-cap rules in the NFL, wouldn't it be better to have players there whom you also have a chance of developing into starters eventually? And yet, for all this emphasis on having good special-teams players, the Patriots, to me, do not seem to be noticeably better than the rest of the league in kick return and coverage, except insofar as Julian Edelman is an awesome punt returner. What are your thoughts? -- Michael (Cologne, Germany)
A. Michael, the more I watch NFL games at this time of year, the more I see special teams playing a direct role in the final outcome. The Panthers' most recent game, a 10-9 road win over the 49ers, was an example of this as Ted Ginn's long punt return set up the game-winning field goal. We saw something similar with Julian Edelman in the Steelers game when things got tight and his punt return helped create more breathing room. Those players are important to the overall team, and while it would be nice to have all players who are factors in two phases (offense/special teams or defense/special teams), that's just not realistic.
Q. Mike, Josh Boyce must be feeling unloved these days. He is "practice player of the week" again (and maybe that's actually a bad thing), but the team goes out and grabs another receiver when Austin Collie goes down. Was the preseason flash just that? -- Dave (Saskatoon)
A. Dave, I don't think the signing of LaQuan Williams had anything to do with Boyce from a wide-receiver perspective. That was special-teams based. Williams has some size, runs fairly well, and can help the coverage units -- which have sprung some leaks in recent weeks.
Q. What kind of infection did Armond Armstead have that is so debilitating that it would cause him to be unable to play several months later? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)
A. I am unaware of the specifics, Tman, but given his medical history from Southern Cal, one figures that this is the type of situation in which extra, extra precaution would be taken.
Q. Mike, feeling a bit relieved that Steve Gregory might only miss the Carolina game. I am wondering why Tavon Wilson has slid so far down the depth chart in your opinion. I thought he was bit of a ball hawk last season, but this year he rarely gets to play and it seems he is even behind rookie Duron Harmon. I was disappointed to see him get a penalty on special teams this past week, too. Hopefully his confidence and the team's confidence in him is not gone at this point. -- Jay (Revere, Mass.)
A. Jay, Tavon Wilson has really slid down the safety depth chart and I think it's because he has been, to use Tedy Bruschi's words, an "error repeater." Coaches will be more willing to accept a mistake (e.g. deep pass vs. Seattle in 2012) if the player makes the correction in ensuing weeks. Wilson did not (e.g. deep pass vs. Rams in London in 2012). Wilson doesn't seem to move as well, or have the same level of instincts, as others at the position. I think his best fit is that dime linebacker role more so than playing a traditional safety spot.
Q. Hi, Mike. Sad that we won't be seeing the red Pat Patriot jerseys, but the safety issue with changing helmets makes sense. With that in mind, why not roll out the Parcells/Bledsoe blues from the '90s? Sure, they're not as sharp as the old reds or current blues, but it would be fun to see Brady wear them once, and you wouldn't have to change helmets. -- Kevin (Alexandria, Va.)
A. Not a bad thought, Kevin. Maybe it's a consideration, although to me the true "throwback" is Pat Patriot.