After two weeks of no football, the New England Patriots will be back in action on Monday night against one of the surprise teams in the NFC in 2013, the Carolina Panthers. In the last Patriots' game, fans saw the offense finally put up the numbers from years past as they were able to score 55 points against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The bye also helps the team's health as running back Shane Vereen and cornerback Aqib Talib are all expected to return this week. Despite losing out on safety Ed Reed to the Jets, the Patriots still enter this week 7-2. However, this game is most likely going to be their toughest test of the season thus far.
The Carolina Panthers (6-3) started off on a sour note. They were 1-3 and rumors were out there that Ron Rivera was going to be out as head coach. However, the Panthers were able to turn it around. They have won five straight games, including an upset last week on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. Even though quarterback Cam Newton (17 total touchdowns, 8 INT's) is the talk of Carolina, the strength of the team is the defense. The Panthers are top 5 in the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, and passing and rushing yards allowed. Keep an eye on this team considering they are just a game behind the Saints in the NFC South and they play New Orleans twice in the last six weeks of the season.
Here are my three keys to Monday night's game (8:25 ET, ESPN) in Carolina:
Are the Patriots Cam's Kryptonite: The quarterback who loves to do the Superman touchdown celebration is on a roll right now. During the Panthers' five game win streak, Cam Newton has been a different quarterback. In those games, Newton has ten total touchdowns to just three interceptions.
Newton is helped out by a triple headed rushing attack that is tenth in the NFL in rushing. The three running backs that will give the Patriots' defensive line fits are DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and Jonathan Stewart. They have the depth to exploit a rush defense that gives up 128 yards per game on the ground. With all those options, Newton is always a threat to extend the play, but opponents have sacked Newton ten times in five games. I have my eyes on the matchup with Aqib Talib vs. Steve Smith as Smith could go over the middle to make big plays with Steve Gregory unlikely to play for the Patriots at safety due to a broken thumb.
Charles In Charge: The Panthers' strength as mentioned before is their defense. In nine games, the defense has 29 sacks. The Patriots and Panthers actually come into this game both with 29 combined sacks. The leader of the defensive line for the Panthers is Charles Johnson. Johnson has 8.5 sacks and has recorded a sack in each of his last four games. Johnson and Greg Hardy (6 sacks) each had double digit sacks last season and are on pace to reach those totals again. In the middle of the defense is linebacker Luke Kuechly. The second year linebacker from Boston College has three interceptions and leads the team in tackles with 75. This includes 11 tackles last week in the win over the 49ers. The Patriots will need to neutralize Kuechly and Johnson in order to survive this road test Monday.
A Valiant Vereen?: All the focus around the Patriots' offense resurgence the last three weeks was around the return of Rob Gronkowski. This week, the Patriots get another key weapon back into the offense. Shane Vereen returns to the lineup for the first time since breaking a bone in his wrist during the season opener. Despite those injuries, Vereen played the whole game, racking up 101 yards on the ground and 58 yards receiving. This the weapon Tom Brady will use on 3rd down on check down passes to try to avoid the Panthers' pass rush. New England's rushing attack without Vereen is still 8th in the NFL (129 yards per game). With Vereen's return, I expect him and Stevan Ridley to be a solid 1-2 punch in the Patriots' backfield. Ridley has four touchdowns in his last three games.
I don't expect the Patriots to score 55 points this week like they did two weeks ago. This is a Panthers' team that still needs to prove itself offensively, but it has already proven its at least a top ten defense in the NFL. Carolina has the run game to keep this game close and can at least slow down the Patriots' offense with its pass rush.Even though Cam has improved and proven me wrong on him at times, he still takes a lot of sacks and turns the ball over. I think the Patriots will survive this road test. New England gets a key turnover on Cam Newton late in the 4th quarter to hold off Carolina. This would continue the streak of 37 straight games of forcing a turnover. Patriots go to 8-2 heading into the hyped up matchup with the Broncos next Sunday night, but it won't be easy.
PATRIOTS 24 PANTHERS 20