The last time the Patriots faced the Panthers, Cam Newton was at Blinn College winning the NJCAA National Championship. In that time, he has added the 2010 Heisman Trophy, the 2010 BCS National Championship and the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year award to his trophy case.
The Panthers won't get a trophy for beating the Patriots in a regular season game, but it would most definitely be a banner win for their team. Truth be told, though, Newton doesn't have to deliver the win on his own.
The defense has been playing some of the best football the league has to offer, currently ranked second in both points and yards. They have the formula to give the Patriots problems, with a front four that can get after the quarterback with seven defenders in coverage.
Here's a closer look at the Panthers.
How they got here: The Panthers dropped their first two games of the season, despite leading in the fourth quarter in both games. The Panthers lost those games by a combined six points, but have earned their six wins by an average of 20.2 points. They have won six of their last seven, and have won five straight headed into this week's game. Those wins, however, come against opponents that are a combined 18-37
Key cog, offense -- Cam Newton, QB: Let's not get cute here. The Panthers are more committed to running the ball this year than years past, but Newton is what makes it all work. His rare combination of pocket passing ability, along with athleticism, speed and strength as a runner in the open field, make him the NFL's best dual-threat quarterback. His passer rating is at a career-high, despite a career-low in passing yards per attempt. That's indicative that he's doing a better job of taking what the defense gives him, and
Key cog, defense -- Greg Hardy, DE: You could easily fill in any of the Panthers defensive linemen in this spot, but Hardy has the biggest all-around impact of that group. Hardy entered the league considered somewhat of a pass-rush specialist, and he remains effective in that role, but he has become a more well-rounded player in his ability to set the edge in the running game. He has an impressive burst off the snap to get upfield in a hurry when rushing the passer, and at 6-4 and 290 pounds, he's not easy to move off the ball when running his direction. There are few, if any, holes in his game.
X factor -- Mike Tolbert, FB: Very few fullbacks show up on a scouting report these days, but Tolbert may be one of the most versatile ones in the league. He contributes in the running game as a lead blocker and short-yardage back, and in the passing game as a blitz protector and a pass-catcher. He has a compact frame at 5-9 and 243 pounds, which allows him to get low on his assignment when blocking. He's not running in a track meet anytime soon, but he will certainly bowl you over; according to stats website Pro Football Focus, Tolbert has 116 yards after contact, more than half of his rushing total of 213 yards.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: The Panthers have stayed relatively injury-free, but they have been without starting cornerback Charles Godfrey since after Week 1 and starting guard Amini Silatolu since after Week 3. Running back DeAngelo Williams (quadriceps) has been hobbled in recent weeks, but has not missed any time.
- The Panthers have allowed nine touchdowns on defense, the lowest total in the league, through their first nine games. The last team to allow an average of one touchdown per game was the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who went on to win the Super Bowl that year.
- If the Patriots plan on struggling again in the third quarter, the Panthers will be happy to take advantage. They are tied for third in the league in third-quarter points-allowed per game (3.3), and are tied for 10th in third-quarter points-scored per game (6.1). The Patriots rank 27th on both defense (6.4 3QPPG) and offense (3.2 3QPPG) in third-quarter scoring.
- The Panthers gave up 46 net yards of passing against the 49ers, the second-lowest total in team history (their best is 29 net passing yards against the Chicago Bears in a 23-6 loss). They also did a nice job of bottling up big plays, and the 49ers biggest play was a 31-yarder -- quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained 16 yards on a scramble, and was hit late for a 15-yard personal foul penalty. Besides that, the 49ers didn't have a play longer than 17 yards.
- The Panthers get a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a four-man rush; according to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks are pressured 36.98 percent of the time they drop back to throw, despite sending a blitz just 23.67 percent of the time. Linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are the primary non-linemen pass-rushers. The Panthers rarely send their defensive backs on a blitz, with safety Michael Mitchell (13) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (10) chief among the defensive backs sent on the rush.
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