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NFL: New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are coming off back-to-back wins, most recently against a top AFC contender in the Los Angeles Chargers. The team is looking to build some momentum towards reaching the playoffs and it starts with a critical stretch of four games in November that could put them in position for a postseason run.

The first opponent in that stretch? The Carolina Panthers and their revamped offense, although they have injury questions at quarterback and running back. For the Patriots to make a run in November and December, this is a critical game to come out on top of.

Offense: Use the speed of Carolina’s linebackers against them

The biggest thing the Patriots need to do is avoid being predictable. The Panthers are very fast at the linebacker position, so the best way to attack them is negate their speed by attacking downhill in the run game and suck up the linebackers on play action passes. With New England being one of the more successful teams on the ground thanks to Damien Harris breaking out in his third year, the team can slow down the Carolina front seven. If the Patriots can do that, they will have the advantage on offense.

Once they can get the Panthers linebackers to step up against the run fake, that should open up windows in the second level for guys to get some chunk plays. Players like Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, and N’Keal Harry — if active after popping up as questionable on Friday’s injury report — could find some yards in that area.

Defense: Don’t allow any cheap points and make the Panthers earn everything

Regardless of who takes the field for Carolina, the Patriots defense cannot allow for its opponent to get some cheap points on easy drives. That will require the offense to avoid turnovers and special teams to do their usual thing, and to make the field long for Sam Darnold or P.J. Walker, whoever starts at quarterback.

In the case of Darnold, the Patriots have some familiarity on how to defend the offense with him under center. Walker, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown. With young quarterbacks, you want to make them earn everything on the field. That means keeping the action in front of them and not allowing any explosive plays over the top.

The Patriots are hurting a bit at the cornerback position, but having J.C. Jackson back after missing two practices with an illness is going to be huge to keep the Panthers in check. Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore are both explosive playmakers that can take the top off of a defense if the Patriots are not careful. By making the Panthers have to methodically drive down the field, it increases the chance that the defense will be able to generate a turnover either by confusing the quarterback or the front creating pressure.

Panthers Player to Take Away: WR D.J. Moore

I’m not sure whether or not Christian McCaffrey plays in this game — he has been activated off injured reserve but will likely be a game-time decision — but if not the next person to focus on is third-year wide receiver D.J. Moore. Moore is a threat at all levels of the defense and can be a problem in both yards after catch and on deep shots. The best way to neutralize him will be to put fourth-year cornerback J.C. Jackson on him and negate his downfield speed.

Jackson gives the Patriots their best matchup to stay with Moore on the outside while they can bracket Robby Anderson on the other side. Taking away big plays from Moore, as noted above, will force the Panthers to methodically march down the field.

X-Factors: WR Kendrick Bourne and DL Christian Barmore

The Panthers made a pair of in-season acquisitions to fortify the outside cornerback rotation, picking up C.J. Henderson and ex-Patriot Stephon Gilmore. Assuming Gilmore is in decent playing shape, New England’s best matchup in the air will be towards the middle of the field. Expect Carolina to try to put their linebackers and safeties in this area to stop the tight ends and Jakobi Meyers with the goal of forcing the Patriots to beat them outside.

This means the team will need Kendrick Bourne to take advantage of his opportunities — the same is true for Nelson Agholor on the other side — after getting benched against the Chargers due to a lost fumble. The Patriots need to test Gilmore and Henderson early to see if they can make something happen outside.

On defense, controlling the line of scrimmage will be key and that means rookie Christian Barmore will need a big game. The second-rounder has already become the team’s number one option on the interior of the defensive line, which reflects the coaching staff’s trust in him. He will need to continue the upward trajectory and to impact the game by creating pressure up the middle.

Assuming the edge defenders are able to hold contain, the combination of interior and edge pressure should make it a tough game for whoever is the signal caller for the Panthers.

Final Score Prediction: Patriots 27, Panthers 14

I feel very good about the Patriots’ ability to dictate on defense; the question will come down to how well the offense can perform. I expect this game to start out as a defensive slugfest early on, given the talent on defense for both teams. However, what will separate the Patriots in this one will be down to coaching and quarterback play — two areas where New England has a monster advantage over Carolina.

In a tight game, the offense finds a way to make it happen late and get a game-sealing touchdown within the final three minutes.