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Unconventional preview: Patriots-Panthers

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 15, 2013 08:52 AM

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Welcome to Season 2, Episode 10 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday around noon. Monday night, the 7-2 Patriots, coming off their bye week, visit Kerry Collins Chris Weinke Rodney Peete Steve Beuerlein Jake Delhomme Jimmy Clausen Cam Newton and the 6-3 Panthers, who confirmed their emergence as a team to be taken seriously with a victory over the Niners Sunday. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...


1. Cam Newton: The Panthers' quarterback isn't putting up the most electrifying stats of his career. He has just 13 touchdown passes, and he's rushed for 266 yards after eclipsing 700 in each of his first two seasons. But he has led the Panthers to five straight wins in their quest for their first playoff berth since 2008, and in the process he's become more efficient, completing a career-best 62.7 percent of his passes (including 23 of 32, or 71.9 percent, against the Niners), and the threat is always there of a big play via his arm or his legs.

kuechlylukefinn1115.JPG2. Luke Kuechly: Boston College fans aren't surprised by Kuechly's rapid ascent to NFL stardom -- he was a tackling machine for the Eagles well before he could legally have a pop at Mary Ann's. But it's been fun to watch him build his name from afar. Kuechly led the league in tackles last season and has 75 so far this year as the fulcrum of the Panthers' second-ranked defense. But it's his improvement in the passing game that has Bill Belichick particularly impressed.

[He's] very good pass defender,� Belichick said. �He�s got good speed, and you see him running with guys in the deep part of the field in their Tampa-2 coverage. He�s got good pursuit to the sideline, makes a lot of plays outside the numbers. Again, a very instinctive guy that can read the quarterback well."

Kuechly is tied for the Panthers' lead with three interceptions this season, and he also has five passes defensed. It'll be fascinating to see whether he's one of the rare linebackers who has the speed and strength to stay with Rob Gronkowski.

3. Shane Vereen: Vereen has played just one game this season, but it was a memorable one. In the opener against the Bills, he ran for 101 yards on 14 carries and picked up another 58 yards on seven receptions. The production became all the more impressive when it was revealed that he played through a hand injury that landed him on injured reserve. Vereen is expected to be active Sunday for the first time since the opener, and his versatile all-around skills should come in handy against the Panthers' tough defense.

No grievance, just a suggestion. This probably isn't one for the Derek Jeter Publishing House, but someone really needs to report the hell out of and write a book on the University of Florida football program circa 2008. Just look at the names on Urban Meyer's roster that season: Tim Tebow. Backup quarterback Cam Newton. Aaron Hernandez. The Pouncey goons. Unsung scumbag Chris Rainey. Riley Cooper. Percy Harvin. Brandon Spikes. Janoris Jenkins. That is an extraordinary collection of talent -- the Gators won the National Championship -- but an uncommon number of those characters lacked character. As the New York Times reported in the wake of Hernandez's arrest, 41 players on that roster were arrested while at Florida. Just imagine what we don't know about that team.

It must be a special kind of frustration to excel at two sports growing up, only to find out that you're not quite good enough to thrive at either once you get to the professional level. Weinke gave professional baseball a shot first, having been chosen out of Cretin-Derham High School in Minnesota by the Blue Jays in the second round of the 1990 MLB Draft. (That's also the alma mater of Joe Mauer, a hot-shot football recruit who turned out to be OK at baseball himself.) After hitting .248 with 69 homers in six seasons in the Jays system and peaking at Triple A, Weinke walked away from baseball to play quarterback at Florida State, where he started and starred for three seasons, even becoming the first senior citizen to win the Heisman Trophy in 2000. He was drafted by the Panthers at age 28, won his first start as a rookie ... then promptly lost his last 14 starts that season, including a 38-6 loss to the Patriots in the season finale. He won one more game in the NFL after that season. But hey, he was probably a better hitter than Gino Torretta, right?

This clip is relatively brief, just 5 minutes and 5 seconds of pregame , but there's a lot to it. You have a narrator whose script is so over-the top ("back and forth wind the cycles of football dominance") that you half-expect Stuart Scott to have a writing credit. You have a reminder, via the appearance of Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Ty Law and more, of how much talent the Patriots had on defense in those days, not to mention that, yes, it really has been 10 years since the franchise won its second Super Bowl. And right around the 4:15 mark, you have what those envious of Tom Brady probably consider compelling evidence that he is indeed a bit of a nerd. Man, I still can't believe this was a decade ago.

I figure most of us marked this down as a relatively easy "W" for the Patriots when the schedule came out, which just goes to show how little we know about teams -- even ones that look hopeless on paper -- before the games have been played. I can't imagine anyone is looking at this one as a walkover now. The win Sunday over the Niners convinced me -- the Panthers are legit. The defense is ferocious and Newton is as versatile a quarterback as the Patriots will encounter this season. I still think the Patriots win -- Tom Brady has his weapon back on offense, provided that Rob Gronkowski doesn't have any ridiculous brand-building projects scheduled for Monday night. Aqib Talib, a defensive player of the year candidate before hurting his hip, is expected to be back, and the Patriots dodged a bullet when the essential Rob Ninkovich had to leave the game against the Steelers two weeks ago. It'll be a Monday night matchup worth watching to the end, when Stephen Gostkowski wins it just like Adam Vinatieri did all those years ago in higher-stakes circumstances. Patriots 32, Panthers 29

(Last week's prediction (before the bye): Patriots 20, Steelers 10. Final score: Patriots 55, Steelers 31. Season record: 5-4.)

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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