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Panthers aren’t as big a challenge for Patriots as you may think

Posted by Adam Kaufman  November 18, 2013 12:00 AM

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Can we maybe dial back the fawning over the Carolina Panthers?

They’re the Carolina Panthers – a team with six wins, and a franchise that hasn’t won in excess of eight contests in a single season since 2008.

Suddenly, the talk since the Panthers’ impressive 10-9 road win in San Francisco last weekend would have you think they’re the ’76 Steelers or the ’85 Bears. Carolina’s a good team with a strong defense, but if you’re waiting for “Mean Joe” Greene, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, or William Perry to take the field, you’re nuts.

New England visits Charlotte Monday for its first in-person look at a team surrounded by a boatload of hype.

The praise is easy to understand. The Panthers’ stoppers lead the NFL in both points (12.8) and yards (283.3) allowed per game. Their opponents have converted just 33.9 percent of the time on third-down, landing Carolina at fifth in the league. The 21 takeaways and 29 sacks (matched by the Patriots, by the way) are awfully impressive as well. Plus, they’ve surrendered only 37 points in four outings at Bank of America Stadium.

Luke Kuechly.jpg

They’ve got former Boston College stud Luke Kuechly, Greg Hardy, and Charles Johnson. Yeah, I’ve heard of ‘em. With that kind of pressure, nobody should expect a layup for Tom Brady’s offensive line.

But how about some acknowledgement of the teams this vaunted ‘D’ has faced?

Carolina’s won five straight, capped by that narrow victory in the Bay Area against the now 6-4 Niners. Of the Panthers’ six wins, five have come against teams with losing records – and these aren’t just a collection of squads sitting a game under. 500. The Giants started 0-6. The Vikings began their year 1-7. The Rams? They dropped six of their first nine. The Buccaneers lost their opening eight matchups. And the Falcons have won only two of 10. Combined, the six are 20-40.

Every one of those six clubs has an offense ranking in the NFL’s bottom 10 in yards per game, with the exception of the Falcons, who are 14th.

Oh, and they also lost to the Bills.

Congrats, Panthers. Awfully intimidating.

Now, obviously, teams have no choice but to play their schedules. The Patriots have certainly beaten some bad opponents on their way to a 7-2 start and what would currently be enough for a first-round bye.

Still, the Pats are actually 3-point underdogs for this game? Let’s get serious.

I’ve been saying all year that it would take until at least Week 11 to get a good idea of what New England’s offense is capable of, and here we are.

Why? The injuries.

Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen haven’t shared the field all season. But, either because of a few unsung heroes or the early play of the defense, the Pats have managed to stay well above water.

Even short-handed, the Patriots have scored no fewer than 27 points in each of their last four games and they’ve averaged 34.8. That 55-31 pounding of a bad Steelers team helped pad the stats, but it doesn’t define them. Amid accusations of inconsistency, the attack has been balanced and moderately better than the previous five games with 383.3 offensive yards a game, including 145 on the ground (up from 343.4 and 116.4, respectively).

Moreover, they’ve been able to score on the ground with nine touchdowns in those last four contests. Considering Ridley’s erratic production and difficulty holding onto the ball throughout the season, this may be a trouble area against the NFL’s third-ranked run-defense (82 yards allowed per game), but the anticipated return of the speedy and multi-faceted Vereen is immense.

Vereen was tremendous in the season-opener in Buffalo with 101 yards on 14 carries, along with seven catches for another 58 yards, and he did it all with a broken bone in his wrist. His reemergence would provide New England with something it hasn’t had since that Week 1 victory – a reliable third-down pass-catching back option. That’d be an instrumental addition for a club that's 26th in the league with a 34.6 percent third-down efficiency.

Add to that the fact that Gronkowski and Amendola are as healthy as they’ve been all season, and even rookie Aaron Dobson has collected nearly 200 yards and three touchdowns over his past two games. Finally, Brady has a number of formidable weapons at his disposal, far more than most of Carolina’s previous challenges.

If this is a litmus test for the experienced Pats against a young and talented Panthers defense, it’s a very passable exam.

Again, that’s not to say it won’t be tough.

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Though the Patriots’ defense should have key component Aqib Talib back in the fold, his secondary-mates Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory have been ruled out. That leaves versatile quarterback Cam Newton with some flexibility against a severely hampered New England ‘D’ already missing three veterans for the season, but you can count on Talib to eagerly await Steve Smith with open arms if he plays. After all, Talib seemed to handle Stevie Johnson, Santonio Holmes, Vincent Jackson, Roddy White, A.J. Green, and Marques Colston pretty well and, all things considered, Julio Jones, too. Before a hip injury cost him essentially his last four games, he was a defensive player of the year candidate. It’s a difference-making arrival against a limited passing attack (the Panthers rank 28th in yards in the air per game).

Newton should benefit, however, from the Pats’ spotty run-defense, which is fourth-worst in the league in yards allowed at 128.2 per contest. But can he really be expected to be a one-man show?

The Patriots have seen Newton before, and players with his skill set, like less-developed rookies EJ Manuel and Geno Smith. Also, the young QB has never appeared in a playoff game. In his three years, the 24-year-old has suited up for only one Monday night contest (to Brady's 17), in an otherwise meaningless season. Prime time is not his specialty.

Do the Pats have their flaws? Of course. Inconsistency, third-down conversions, red zone efficiency, and so on. But they’re rested, undoubtedly prepared, and I wouldn’t expect any rust from a Bill Belichick squad that’s had two weeks off. Lest we forget, the Pats have won nine of their last 10 games that have followed bye weeks.

Please, don’t let one good Panthers win and a few numbers scare you. The Patriots sure won’t.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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