The New England Patriots went back to work at Gillette Stadium Wednesday morning after having had extended time off throughout the bye week. Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady fielded questions from the media about arguably the hottest team in the NFL, the Carolina Panthers. After an uninspiring 1-3 start to the season, Carolina has rattled off five straight games and looks like a legitimate threat to challenge New Orleans for the NFC South crown. When the schedule was released in April, this looked like a potential trap game for the Patriots, who will host the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos and ex Patriot Wes Welker in a primetime matchup less than a week later. With the way Carolina's defense has been playing of late, New England knows it can't afford to look ahead on the schedule. Here are just a few of the key matchups the Patriots must win if they hope to come out of Bank of America Stadium with a win Monday night:
When Aqib Talib was playing at an all-pro level earlier this season, there may not have been a more improved unit from last season in all of football. That's how much his presence has meant to the turnaround of this once maligned unit. Add in the pro-bowl caliber play from corner-turned-safety Devin McCourty, and the progression of second-year cover corner Alfonzo Dennard, and New England's secondary play has been a very welcomed surprise.
All signs point to Talib returning to game action sooner rather than later, but with updates on his status mum this week, it wouldn't be a surprise if he gives the hip another week to prepare for Demaryius Thomas and the high powered Broncos. As mentioned above, a healthy Talib changes the complexion of not just the backend, but the entire defense.
In his third year, Cam Newton is finally starting to put it all together. Still a weapon when he breaks it off outside the pocket, Cam's accuracy has improved considerably this year, completing nearly 77 percent of throws over the middle of the field. His safety valve is veteran pro-bowl receiver Steve Smith, who has the route-running and pure speed to burn past a secondary for big play opportunities. Like the Patriots, consistency is still a question mark for this Carolina offense. After having gone four straight weeks with at least 30 points, the Panthers mustered only 10 in a winning effort against the 49ers.
One final area to watch: Carolina will likely look to establish the ground game early on a defense that now ranks 30th in the league. Newton has been deadly this season when throwing off of play-action; according to ProFootballFocus.com, he has a qb rating of 114.9 when faking the run. If the Patriots defense hopes to get off the field early, slowing down running back DeAngelo Williams will be a major point of emphasis.
Carolina's defense has asserted itself as one of the best in the NFL, and it starts up front with an extremely physical and relentless group of pass-rushers. On the outside, bookends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy comprise one of the premiere pass rushing tandems in the NFC. Johnson has registered 8.5 sacks and six quarterback hits, while Hardy has pitched in 6 sacks and 26 qb hurries. Stats don't tell the whole story for these players though, as they are both more than capable run-stuffers with the ability to set the edge on the outside. At tackle, Carolina consistently applies pressure and pushes the pocket by keeping guys fresh with an impressive four-man rotation. The Panthers spent two early draft picks on interior lineman Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who split time with solid veterans Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole.
On the Patriots side, this offensive line is still looking for week-to-week consistency in the passing game. Tom Brady has been sacked at least three times in each of the last five games and has hit the turf a total of 26 times already this season, one fewer than the O-line gave up in all of 2012. Logan Mankins is coming off a poor performance against Pittsburgh in which he was beaten several times and also drew two penalty flags. In order for Brady to replicate the success that he had throwing the ball last week, New England will have to win this game in the trenches, as is often the case in the NFL.
Luke Keuchly vs. Patriots backs and tight ends
A top ten draft pick out of Boston College a year ago and Defensive Rookie of the Year for 2012, Keuchly has already established himself as one of the premiere middle linebackers in the game. He has the range, instincts, ball skills and tackling efficiency to be the centerpiece of Carolina's defense for the foreseeable future.
In Wednesday's weekly press conference, Tom Brady likened Keuchly to Ed Reed in that he seems to be all over the field and has a knack for coming up with the football. That's about as high of praise as one can get in this league. It will be interesting to see if Keuchly will be used to attack running backs out of the backfield and if he will be able to slow down red-zone nightmare Rob Gronkowski.
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