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Carolina Panthers vs. New England Patriots Preview and Prediction

Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey

Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey

The Carolina Panthers will pay a rare visit to Gillette Stadium on Sunday to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in just the seventh meeting ever between the two teams. The all-time series is deadlocked at three games apiece. The teams last met in Charlotte in 2013 with the Panthers coming away with a 24-20 victory on "Monday Night Football."

Tom Brady

Both teams enter Week 4 with identical 2-1 records. However, the Patriots narrowly avoided being 1-2, needing a late home rally against the Texans to secure a dramatic 36-33 victory in the closing seconds of last week's game. Despite the win, and another stellar performance by the NFL's top-ranked offense, Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia clearly have some work to do. New England has had the worst defense in the NFL through the first three weeks, allowing 461 yards and 31.7 points per game.

Carolina suffered its first loss of the season in Week 3, losing 34-13 at home to NFC South rival New Orleans. Like the Patriots, Ron Rivera's Panthers have a serious issue of their own to contend with — it just happens to be on the other side of the football. The Carolina offense has been among the worst in the league, averaging just 277 yards and 15 points per game. Carolina's saving grace has been its defense, which sits atop the NFL through the first three weeks.

Carolina at New England

Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 1 at 1 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: New England -9

Three Things to Watch

1. Will Cam Newton find his mojo?

It was expected that Cam Newton would need some time to knock off the rust following offseason shoulder surgery. Unfortunately, progress hasn't just been slow for the three-time Pro Bowl signal-caller — it has been nonexistent. In three games, Newton has thrown for just 566 yards and two touchdowns. Worse yet, he has thrown four interceptions, has the fourth-lowest QB rating (69.7) in the league, and hasn't thrown a single touchdown pass since Week 1.

A promising matchup against New England could be exactly what the former MVP needs to finally get on track. No one has been more generous to opposing quarterbacks than the Patriots. New England has allowed an NFL-worst 992 passing yards and eight touchdowns through the air in the first three weeks. Each and every quarterback who has faced the New England defense has thrown for at least 301 yards and two touchdowns. That includes rookie Deshaun Watson, who carved up the Patriots' secondary last week following sub-par performances in the first two games of his pro career.

While this looks to be the perfect matchup for Newton to possibly regain his MVP form, the same could have been said last week when he faced a terrible Saints defense. It was a favorable opportunity that Newton managed to squander with arguably the worst performance of his entire career.

2. Tom Terrific vs. the top-ranked Carolina defense

The other former NFL MVP quarterback playing in Sunday's game has done anything but struggle so far in 2017. In fact, the ageless Tom Brady (above, right) has been arguably the best signal-caller in the NFL through the first three weeks. He leads the league in both passing yards (1,092) and touchdowns through the air (8). He also has yet to throw a single interception. All of this behind an offensive line that has been suspect at times, with a complementary run game that hasn't always been very complementary.

Brady has no doubt been spectacular as usual, but he could be in for a challenge against the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL. The Panthers have allowed just 251.7 yards and 13.3 points per game through three contests. They are only giving up 162 passing yards per game. And the Patriots' shaky offensive line could be tested by a solid Carolina pass rush that has produced eight sacks, thanks in part to another ageless wonder in Julius Peppers (2.5 sacks).

The bad news for the Carolina defense is that Brady has already put up some pretty impressive numbers against two of the league's better defenses (Kansas City and Houston). The Panthers' defense also had its struggles against another elite quarterback just last week with Drew Brees tossing three touchdown passes. So, while the Carolina defense makes for a worthy adversary for Brady on Sunday, Brady presents a much bigger challenge to the Carolina defense.

3. Emerging playmaker

Big things were expected for Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey heading into the season. But up until last week, the first-round draft pick had been fairly quiet. His nine receptions and 101 receiving yards in a breakout performance against the Saints illustrated just how dangerous the versatile playmaker can be as a pass catcher. It's a point he could easily make again Sunday against the struggling Patriots defense.

Christian McCaffrey

While Bill Belichick is well known for his ability to take the opposing team's top playmaker out of the equation, McCaffrey creates quite the matchup nightmare for a New England defense that hasn't really been able to stop anyone, particularly when it comes to versatile speedsters. Case in point: The New England defense was torched by Kansas City's Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill, players with similar skill sets to McCaffrey's, in Week 1.

Look for the Panthers to get the ball in McCaffrey's hands as much as possible, in a variety of different ways on Sunday. Look for Belichick to throw everything but the kitchen sink at him in an attempt to keep that from happening.

Final Analysis

This makes for an intriguing matchup, one that pits the Patriots' No. 1-ranked offense against the Panthers' top ranked defense. It gets even more interesting with a struggling Carolina offense squaring off against a New England defense that has been beyond bad to this point.

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Tom Brady has proven time and time again that he can bail out a struggling Patriots defense. He did it just last week. The question is, is Carolina's defense good enough to make up for an anemic Panthers offense that will probably need to rely on a rookie to do most of the damage? They couldn't do it last week at home against a prolific Saints offense. And that challenge may be even more daunting for the Panthers' defense on the road against a Tom Brady-led offense.

Prediction: Patriots 31, Panthers 20

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.