Carolina lit the world on fire over the course of their first three games of the season; stifling opposing offenses with their relentless front-7 and playing smart/mistake-free football while reeling off a few wins. Then the wheels came falling off. Christian McCaffrey got hurt, and suddenly Carolina was unable to win on defense alone, losing three straight one possession games before getting blown out on the road against the New York Giants and eventually squeezing by the awful Atlanta Falcons a week ago.
New England’s season seemed to be doomed early on, as the newly constructed roster found themselves sitting with a 1-3 record for the first time in two decades. A month later, they’re sitting at .500 thanks to a pair of close wins and a blowout over the New York Jets. Righting the ship just in time to take on a group of teams with similar records.
Both teams sit at 4-4, but that took very different paths to get there. Despite the talent, coaching, or momentum based advantages that many believe the Patriots may have, this game like many others will be decided within the matchups. After all, haven’t they all been decided that way this season? Here’s a look at the four matchups that will decide Sunday’s game.
Josh Uche vs. P.J. Walker
The New England Patriots have long struggled with quarterbacks like P.J. Walker. A backup who can come in with relatively little film on themselves, and provide a different skillset from the starter is the exact opposite of what New England’s game plan based defense wants to see. Lest we forget Brock Osweiler’s miraculous victory over New England in 2015.
In fewer words, P.J. Walker can present problems for the Patriots. Walker — a creative quarterback who works best outside of the pocket — is already the kind of quarterback New England usually struggles to contain. With an illness potentially keeping J.C. Jackson out of the game, (more on that later) Walker’s ability to create could give his receivers some big opportunities to defeat New England vertically. How can New England stop that? Josh Uche.
The forgotten man along New England’s front seven, Uche still looks to be viewed by the Patriots coaching staff as a situational player. Luckily for him, becoming the spy to quarterback P.J. Walker is the perfect situation for him. Athletically, Uche is the best option to spy Walker along the front-7 and could very well be the answer to stopping Carolina if they choose to run a more option based attack with the speedy Walker.
Patriots DBs vs. Robby Anderson
The aforementioned J.C. Jackson illness is looking like more of a problem as we inch closer to Sunday, with Jackson missing practice on both Wednesday and Thursday. Though he likely wouldn’t draw the Anderson matchup, Jackson’s absence could necessitate a switch up in the secondary and leave either Joejuan Williams or Myles Bryant in coverage on Carolina’s speedy receiver.
Robby Anderson’s numbers won’t pop off the page. His speed is a different story, jumping out on tape relatively quickly. That’s not ideal for a Patriots secondary that lost it’s resident speedster in Jonathan Jones just a few weeks ago. That make’s Anderson one of the most dangerous matchups that New England will have faced this year, because on paper they don’t have an answer for a player like him.
Good news: football isn’t played on paper, it’s played by real life human beings. The Patriots have two particular human beings with very different capabilities that may provide an answer to a player like Anderson. First is Myles Bryant, a do-it-all defensive back who has shown an innate ability to keep the lid on any particular play. He has shown time and time again that he can get the job done, even if it doesn’t make much sense. The other man is Joejuan Williams. A former second round pick who hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, Williams has everything needed to make Robby Anderson uncomfortable. Size, strength, and physicality aren’t the traits that Anderson likes to see in opposing corners, but they’re exactly what Williams brings to the table.
Michael Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn vs. Haason Reddick and Brian Burns
Rule No. 1 of deploying a rookie QB: protect him. This is something that the Patriots seemed to forget through the first month and a half, as they rolled out four different offensive line combinations, none of which involved their five most talented lineman. Two weeks ago against the New York Jets, that all changed as New England’s hand was forced and they inserted Ted Karras at left guard, and moves Michael Onwenu to right tackle. Since then, it’s been relatively smooth sailing for Mac Jones’ personal protection unit.
Now, that unit —and specifically their tackles— face their toughest challenge yet in the Carolina Panthers. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has one of the NFL’s best pass rushing tandems, and he loves to deploy it in a number of different ways. Through the first four weeks of the season, Carolina was pressuring quarterbacks more than 50% of the time. Since the, that number has decreased with Brian Burns tailing off a bit, but Haason Reddick has been able to pick up some of the slack with his 7.5 sacks on the season.
Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu, New England’s two tackles, will face their first true test of a true pass rushing duo. With Carolina having not one but two great pass rushers, there are no days off for the two young anchors of New England’s offensive line. It will be interesting to see if Onwenu, who recently made the move back outside, can keep up with the quick action that Burns and Reddick will bring to the table. If he can’t, Carolina’s duo has a chance to flip Sunday’s game on its head.
Mac Jones vs. Stephon Gilmore
Mac Jones and Stephon Gilmore shared some kind words about each other over the past week in advance of Sunday’s matchup. Jones said that Gilmore was “...just an all-around good football player.” Gilmore returned the favor by saying Jones was “...a good — great young quarterback,” and that he would be, “a good player in this league.”
These of course aren’t the usual niceties that we see from opponents. “Coach Steph” as he came to be known in New England, was admittedly a mentor to Jones through the first few months of the rookies career in the NFL. Jones said, “...he actually helped me a lot, just talking with him. He’s like, ‘Hey, I see you do this on film,’ or whatever. So he definitely played a good role for me just in talking with him.”
So, in a world where Stephon Gilmore did his best to pay it forward and help a young player get his career started on the right track, one question remains. Did Gilmore hold one or two things back that he’s keeping up his sleeve? If he did, Sunday will be his first, and maybe only, opportunity to put them to use and stick it to his former team.
At this point in the season, Panthers’ coach Matt Rhule admitted that Gilmore is playing a third down role while he gets right from his quad injury. So perhaps this matchup won’t totally effect the outcome of the game, but it will help many form their arguments about which side won the Gilmore trade... and for me, that’s enough.