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Patriots vs. Panthers preview: Will New England improve to 4-0 on the road on Sunday?

Related: NFL playoff picture: Patriots are starting to make some noise in the AFC

Minnesota Vikings v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

After starting the season with four losses in six games, the New England Patriots have started to hit their stride. The team won two straight to improve to 4-4 on the year, and it remains unbeaten when traveling — something they will have to do again this week: the Patriots will play the 4-4 Carolina Panthers in Charlotte on Sunday.

Will New England improve to 4-0 on the road? That remains to be seen, but the oddsmakers think they will. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Patriots are listed as a 3.5-point favorite as of Wednesday morning. Given their strong outing the last two weeks and the Panthers’ inconsistency and injury concerns — more on those in a second — it is not hard to see why that is the case.

With all that being said, let’s take a closer look at New England’s Week 9 opponent.

Offense

Points scored: 20.6/game (22nd)

Yards gained: 2,628 (25th)

Passing offense: 169-for-288, 1,712 yards, 7 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, -0.046 EPA (27th)

Rushing offense: 234 carries, 916 yards, 9 touchdowns, -0.075 EPA (15th)

Despite their 4-4 record, the Panthers actually field one of the least productive offenses in the NFL. One area in particular has proven to be a challenge for the club: Carolina’s passing offense has been bad so far this year, with quarterback Sam Darnold struggling in his first year with the organization. The run offense has looked comparatively good even with Christian McCaffrey missing some time due to injury, but relying on the run game can only get you so far in the NFL of the 2020s (just ask last year’s Patriots).

Defense

Points against: 19.9/game (5th)

Yards given up: 2,365 (2nd)

Passing defense: 163-for-255, 1,511 yards, 12 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, -0.083 EPA (3rd)

Rushing defense: 194 carries, 854 yards, 6 touchdowns, -0.135 EPA (6th)

While Carolina’s offense has been up and down so far this season, the team’s defense has been among the best in the league regardless of category. One reason for its success has been the group’s ability to get off the field on third and fourth downs: opponents have converted only 34 of 106 plays in such situations for a success rate of a mere 32.1 percent. Accordingly, the Panthers are ranked first in the league in plays per drive (4.9), second in yards (23.8), and fourth in points (1.65).

Week 1 vs. New York Jets: W 19-14

Week 2 vs. New Orleans Saints: W 26-7

Week 3 at Houston Texans: W 24-9

Week 4 at Dallas Cowboys: L 36-28

Week 5 vs. Philadelphia Eagles: L 21-18

Week 6 vs. Minnesota Vikings: L 34-28 (OT)

Week 7 at New York Giants: L 25-3

Week 8 at Atlanta Falcons: W 19-13

The Panthers started their season in impressive fashion, jumping out to a 3-0 record thanks to wins over the Jets, Saints and Texans. However, they were unable to sustain their early-season form: Carolina lost four straight after its perfect start, with a 25-3 loss to the 1-5 Giants the team’s low-point of the season so far. Last Sunday against the Falcons, however, the Panthers returned to the win column to get back to .500.

Offense

QB Sam Darnold; RB Chuba Hubbard*; WR D.J. Moore, WR Robby Anderson, WR Terrace Marshall Jr.*; TE Ian Thomas; LT Cameron Erving, LG Michael Jordan, C Matt Paradis, RG Trent Scott, RT Taylor Moton

*rookies

The Panthers’ best offensive player — running back Christian McCaffrey — remains on injured reserve as of Wednesday morning, and his status for the game is uncertain. Nonetheless, the team fields some solid talent at the skill positions: D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. form a good receiving group, with Chuba Hubbard also adding some solid rushing performances. The quarterback and offensive line, however, remain a problem for the team.

Defense

DE Brian Burns, DT Derrick Brown, DT DaQuan Jones, OLB Haason Reddick; LB Shaq Thompson, LB Jermaine Carter Jr; CB Stephon Gilmore, CB A.J. Bouye, CB Keith Taylor*; SS Sean Chandler, FS Jeremy Chinn

*rookie

With ex-Patriot Stephon Gilmore added to the mix, the Panthers field an impressive secondary — one that feature a strong cornerback group even with first-round rookie Jaycee Horn on injured reserve due to a broken foot. The front seven is no less impressive, though. Led by veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson, the group has been stout against the run and disruptive versus the pass.

Specialists

K Zane Gonzalez, P Lachlan Edwards, LS J.J. Jansen; KR/PR Alex Erickson

As of today, punter Lachlan Edwards remains on the practice squad, but he is expected to be added to the game day squad. The players surrounding him offer plenty of experience, with Erickson a productive player in the return game.

QB Sam Darnold/QB P.J. Walker: The Panthers are facing some questions at the most important position no the field heading into Week 9. Sam Darnold is in the concussion protocol after leaving last week’s game against the Falcons. If he is good to go, he is the starter despite posting some sub-par numbers so far this season. If Darnold is not cleared to return, P.J. Walker will take his place. In 2020 so far, Walker has gone just 3-for-15 as a passer for 33 yards. For comparison, Darnold is 166-for-273 for 1,814 yards and a 7-to-8 touchdown-interception rate.

RB Christian McCaffrey/RB Chuba Hubbard: While head coach Matt Rhule is hopeful to get Christian McCaffrey back sooner rather than later after he hurt his hamstring in Week 3, he remains on injured reserve for now. If the 25-year-old is unable to go, rookie Chuba Hubbard will again serve as the team’s top running back option. Hubbard has had some moments, but he is still developing behind an inconsistent offensive line.

LB Haason Reddick: The Panthers made some prominent defensive investments this year, including signing former first-round draft pick Haason Reddick to a one-year contract. Reunited with his college head coach, the Temple product has looked good: through eight games, Reddick leads the Carolina defense with 7.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits.

CB Stephon Gilmore: Patriots fans need to introduction to Stephon Gilmore after watching him serve as the team’s CB1 between 2017 and 2020. The one-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl champion was traded to the Panthers in early October, while still on the physically unable to perform list. He did return since then, and in his debut against the Falcons last week played 17 snaps. He immediately caught a crucial interception.

Head coach: Matt Rhule

Coordinators: Joe Brady (offense), Phil Snow (defense), Chase Blackburn (special teams)

Now in his second season in Carolina, former Temple and Baylor head coach Matt Rhule is looking to improve on a 5-11 record posted in 2020. While the Panthers are still an inconsistent team, especially as far as Joe Brady’s offense is concerned, they are headed in the right direction: they have already won four games this season and are a .500 team with the Patriots coming to town.

The Patriots and Panthers have met seven times so far, with one of the meetings coming in the playoffs:

  • Patriots wins: 3 wins (including 1 playoff win)
  • Panthers wins: 4 wins

The Patriots and Panthers have not played a lot of games against one another, but one of the eight contests still stands out: the two organizations met in Super Bowl XXXVIII, with New England celebrating a 32-29 victory. Almost two decades later, the game still has a strong argument to be made as one of the best Super Bowls in NFL history: it was a constant back-and-forth that saw both stout defense and explosive offense, and that was not decided until a late fourth-quarter Adam Vinatieri field goal.