Tom Brady and the 7-2 New England Patriots travel to Charlotte to take on Cam Newton and the 6-3 Carolina Panthers, on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" at 8:30 p.m. ET from Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers, winners of five straight, are enjoying their longest winning streak since 2005. Their 10-9 victory over the 49ers last week silenced several critics, many of whom pointed to the Panthers' four-game winning streak being a result of playing teams with a combined record of 9-28, a .243 winning percentage.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have battled injuries and inexperience all season, yet they still find themselves amongst the AFC's elite as they sit atop the AFC East. This is the fifth meeting overall between these two franchises. The regular season record sits at 2-2. New England, however, holds the all-time advantage thanks to its thrilling 32-29 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
3 Things to Watch
Belichick After the Bye
No one is better at utilizing the bye week to prepare a team for a stretch run in the second half of the season than Bill Belichick. In four different seasons Belichick has posted an 8-0 record following the Patriots' bye and in three different seasons he has led his team to a 7-1 mark. UnderBelichick, the Patriots are 10-3 the week after their bye. In fact, the Patriots are an astonishing 87-24 coming off of their bye week since 2001, including 26-4 over the last three years.
Can Tom Brady move the ball against the Panthers Defense?
Did we see the return of the old Brady and the potent Patriots offense in their 55-point explosion against Pittsburgh or was that simply a flash in the pan? The 55 points were the most scored by New England since 59 against Indianapolis in Week 10 last year. With a 151.8 QB rating, Brady posted the fourth-highest passer rating of his career and his first rating over 150 since Week 11 of the 2010 season. It was Brady's first 400-yard, four-touchdown performance since Sept. 12, 2011. It appears the addition of a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, along with the developing Kembrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, has been a jolt of energy into a Patriots offense that has been sluggish at times this year. New England is averaging 34.4 points per game in its last four contests. While questions still surround the consistency of the New England offense, the Carolina defense has proven themselves week-in and week-out in 2013. The Panthers are second in the NFL in total defense and in points allowed, as they are giving up just 283.3 yards and 12.8 points per game. Additionally, Carolina boasts the NFL's fifth-best passing defense and second-best rushing defense. The Panthers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since C.J. Spiller went for 103 back in Week 2 this year. Carolina has held three different quarterbacks under 200 yards passing and hasn't allowed a 300-yard passer since Russell Wilson threw for 320 yards in the season opener. Last week, the Panthers held the 49ers to just 46 passing yards, the fewest by a San Francisco team since 2005.
Patriots' banged-up secondary vs. Panthers' WRs
Perhaps the most important factor for this game will be the health of New England cornerback Aqib Talib. The Patriots will already be thin in their secondary, as cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Steve Gregory have been ruled out for tonight. Talib has been out since Week 6 with a hip injury, but he is listed as questionable this week. All signs continue to point to Talib returning this week and shadowing Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith in coverage. Talib's return would be a huge bonus for the Patriots as he's absolutely shut down the opponent's top targets this year. The combination of Stevie Johnson, A.J. Green, Jimmy Graham and Vincent Jackson have averaged 2.75 receptions, 33.5 yards, and .25 touchdowns per game against Talib. Without Talib, Cam Newton and Smith could go off and turn this game into a shootout. That's something New England doesn't want facing linebacker Luke Kuechly and the fierce Carolina D.
Key Player for New England: Stevan Ridley, RB
The third-year pro from LSU has been the stabilizing force for the New England offense. Ridley has six touchdowns in his last four games and 393 yards rushing in his last 82 carries. Ridley better be ready for some tough sledding against the NFL's second-ranked rush defense. If he is able to run effectively against this stout Carolina defense, it should open up passing lanes for Tom Bray to worth with and also slow down the Panthers' pass rush.
Key Player for Carolina: Cam Newton, QB
Newton hasn't put up some of the gaudy numbers we've seen from him in his first two NFL seasons. Still, he's spread the ball around effectively to the trio of Steve Smith, Greg Olsen and Brandon LaFell. All three have over 30 catches and 400 receiving yards. Newton hasn't been ultra sharp the last two weeks, as he's thrown just one touchdown and three interceptions. In the three games before that, however, he threw six touchdowns with no picks. The biggest difference in Newton's game this year is he hasn't run the ball as much as previously. He has yet to post more than 50 yards rushing in a game and has just four rushing touchdowns.
You have to love the way Carolina head coach Ron Rivera has his defense playing. The Panthers looked awfully impressive last week against San Francisco, but I'm still not convinced this Carolina team is for real. Last week's victory was actually their first victory against a team with a winning record. The Patriots just seem much more battle-tested and battle-strong. At the end of the day, if you give Tom Brady and Bill Belichick a whole extra week to prepare, you're in for a long night.
New England 24, Carolina 23