When the 2013 NFL schedule was released earlier this year, many looked at this tilt with the Panthers as an easy, “warm-up” game for the enormous Sunday Night Football meeting with the Denver Broncos, next week. However the Panthers will be riding a five game winning streak as they welcome the Pats to town, and I expect a tough, close game this Monday night. Here are a few quick thoughts on this marquee matchup.
1. Panthers Defense Is Legit
Carolina went into last week’s game with the San Francisco 49ers ranked third in overall defense, and second in points allowed. Despite these terrific numbers, many football experts were still skeptical of this unit, because of the lack of offensive talent that they had faced. But I think that they silenced the critics, as they held the Niners to 151 total yards, and nine points. I watched most of this game, and I came away thinking that their front seven could possibly be the best in the NFL. This group sacked Colin Kaepernick six times, including a big one late in the fourth quarter that helped seal the win. New England better be ready for this ferocious group, because things could get ugly in a hurry for Tom Brady and company, if that defensive front isn’t neutralized.
2. Will Aqib Talib Finally Return To The Field?
The Patriots top cornerback went down in week six versus the Saints, and he hasn’t seen the field since. I think that Talib could probably have gone last week in Pittsburgh, but given the fact that their bye week was coming up, Belichick and company elected to rest him another week. Carolina doesn’t exactly have the most explosive passing game, but having Talib back will help regardless, and it will be interesting to see if New England decides to give him the okay.
3. How Will Offense Respond To 55 Point Outing?
Tom Brady and the Pats offense finally broke out of their season long slump last week, putting a 50 spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Everything seemed to come together for New England, and it gave all of ‘Patriot Nation’ hope for things to come. With the dangerous Carolina defense coming up, I can’t think of a better test for this offense to have, coming off of their explosive outing against the Steelers. Every facet of the offense will be tested, especially the offensive line and the Patriots running game. Carolina’s secondary is solid, but it is not on the same planet as their front seven. I am excited to see how Brady and company handle this defense, particularly up front, possibly giving the Pats the opportunity to take advantage of some matchups in the back end.
4. Sopoaga’s Impact
Newly acquired defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga played 26 of the 75 possible defensive snaps last week against the Steelers, and in those few plays that he was on the field, he made the kind of impact that the Patriots were looking for when they traded for him. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have done a good job on the inside, but it was obvious that New England would need some help in there if they were to make a run into the playoffs. Sopoaga is a big guy that can take up blockers (much like Wilfork did), and on multiple occasions last week, he did exactly this. The Panthers represent a much bigger challenge on the ground than Pittsburgh did, as they boast four guys that can run the ball effectively (DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart, and of course, Cam Newton). I am intrigued at the notion of Sopoaga going up against a rushing attack like Carolina’s, and I am hopeful that he will be able to help the Patriots slow them down.