After 15 days off from game action following their bye, the New England Patriots will head on the road this week to take on the 6-3 Carolina Panthers. Although the Patriots are coming off a big win of their own, there is arguably no team hotter than the Panthers. After starting the season 1-3, the Panthers have been on an absolute tear, winning five straight. The first four wins came against lesser opponents in the Vikings, Rams, Buccaneers, and Falcons. But in week ten, the Panthers shut a lot of their doubters up by earning a convincing 10-9 victory over the 49ers. This will be the Patriots toughest test of the season thus far.
How They Rank:Total Offense: 323.6 YPG (20th)
Rush Offense: 128.0 YPG (10th)
Pass Offense: 195.6 YPG (28th)
Points Per Game: 23.7 PPG (15th)
Total Defense: 283.3 YPG (2nd)
Rush Defense: 82.0 YPG (2nd)
Pass Defense: 201.3 YPG (T-4th)
Points Allowed/Game: 12.8 PPG (2nd)
Turnover Ratio: +8 (4th)
Three Storylines to Watch:
Carolina’s Pass Rush:It’s only Wednesday, but I feel like this story has already been like an iPod on repeat mode. But in reality, that’s the way it should be. The Panthers have a pair of top defensive ends in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who each possess smooth pass rush moves, but also the ability to anchor against the game’s best tackles. On the year, Hardy and Johnson have played 463 and 451 snaps respectively. Hardy has six sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 26 hurries. Johnson has 8.5 sacks, six hits, and 32 additional hurries. They have a rotation of four solid defensive tackles in rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short and veterans Dwan Edwars and Colin Cole. For a Patriots offensive line that has struggled in pass protection this season, the Panthers’ front four could cause some issues. Just ask Colin Kaepernick how he felt after the 49ers’ loss last week.
Patriots and consistency on offense:
The Patriots certainly had an offensive explosion in week nine against the Steelers, but was that an aberration, or can that kind of production be the norm going forward? This will be one of the key questions heading into latter portions of the season. And perhaps no team remaining on the schedule will challenge the notion that the “Patriots offense is back” harder than the Panthers. Simply put, the Panthers are an elite defensive team, ranking in the top five of both run defense and pass defense. They have a relentless pass rush, as outlined above. But the rest of their front seven makes it extremely difficult to run against them, from Lotulelei at defensive tackle, to Luke Kuechly and the resurgent Thomas Davis at linebacker. This game will be a test for the offense, and will show us if the Patriots are truly good enough on that side of the ball to compete for a championship.
Containing Cam Newton:
The Panthers, in some way like the Patriots, haven’t exactly been a model of consistency on offense this season. After putting up 30+ points in four straight weeks, they managed a mere ten against the 49ers Sunday and benefited from their elite defensive performance. But there’s no doubt about it, in year three, Cam Newton has shown real signs of improvement. He has continued to be careful with the ball, and his accuracy has improved. He’s hitting nearly 77% of his passes in the middle of the field and to the left from 0 to 19 yards. This is with a relatively pedestrian receiving corps that contains the aging Steve Smith, the limited Ted Ginn, and the underwhelmingly average Brandon LaFell. Of course, Newton is also a dual threat. He has only 268 yards on the ground this season after putting up over 700 his first two seasons, but this is an area where the Patriots stay focused. Chandler Jones will need to focus on outside containment this game. His rush moves often leave him getting caught inside. Against a quarterback like Newton, it is critical to keep him in the pocket and keep the containment to the outside. One other note on Newton: he’s been tearing teams apart on the play-action this season. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he’s completing 10% more of his passes and has a 114.9 quarterback rating off of it.
What are your early thoughts on the match-up?