Curran's Patriots-Panthers preview review

Curran's Patriots-Panthers preview review
November 19, 2013, 4:00 am
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FOXBORO -- The Patriots 55-point outburst against Pittsburgh has been fermenting for 15 days. In the time elapsed since, the Carolina Panthers have beaten the San Francisco 49ers on the road, improved to 6-3 and have a bandwagon that’s SRO. Monday night is gonna be good.
 
It was definitely good. Best game of the year. Every bit of enthusiasm over how good the Panthers may be was deserved.
 
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Carolina has a nasty defense. And while it’s incumbent on me to point out that they haven’t faced an offense of outstanding ability all year – Niners, Falcons, Bucs, Rams, Vikings, Cards, Giants, Bills, Seahawks – Carolina’s not just holding down crap offenses, they are throttling them. The Panthers tackles – Star Lotulelei and Dwan Edwards – allow linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to pursue and swarm and the result is opponents are going for just 82 yards per game on the ground. The defensive ends – Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy – have combined for 14.5 sacks. On the back end of the defense, corners Captain Munnerlyn (an all-time great name), Melvin White and Drayton Florence are capable. Safeties Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell are solid not spectacular. Against a front-seven like that which employs zone blitzes as Carolina does, spread offense is often the best antidote. That way, there’s less confusion about who’s coming and who’s dropping. It also creates more individual matchups on the perimeter in the passing game and can open up space on the interior for running lanes. Then it boils down to simple execution. With the Patriots having had extra prep time for the Panthers and Tom Brady being absolutely diabolical when it comes to relishing the chance to pick apart upstarts, look for New England to empty the bucket on Carolina in terms of variety. And look for Carolina to not know what hit it.
 
As Brady pointed out to me at his locker after the game, the Panthers never really stopped the Patriots as much as the Patriots stopped themselves. Using a variety of personnel, formations and weapons, the Patriots penetrated to the Carolina 40 and gave up a sack to a three-man rush on third-and-4. They fumbled at the Carolina 13. An unsportsmanlike penalty backed them from the Panthers’ 26 to the Carolina 41 and they wound up settling for a field goal. Brady was surgical for much of the game – 29 for 40 for 296 with a touchdown and the controversial game-ending pick. The Patriots ran the ball effectively – 25 carries, 107 yards. Six players caught multiple passes and the return of Shane Vereen bodes well for the Patriots offense going forward. Still, there was a lot to lament in terms of efficiency. Also, because of the Panthers’ efficiency, New England had just seven drives all game. But they never went three-and-out.
 
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
The more you look at their numbers, the more respect you get for Cam Newton and the rest of the offense. They move the chains – 196 first downs to 144 for the opposition – have the fewest three-and-outs of any team in the league (14) and lead the NFL in time of possession. Newton is completing 63 percent of his passes and he has five excellent options in the passing game – Steve Smith, tight end Greg Olsen, Brandon LaFell, field-stretcher Ted Ginn and running back DeAngelo Williams. Smith has 42 catches for 450 yards and is one of the most maniacal competitors of his generation. Olsen has 35 catches and is a poor man’s Aaron Hernandez. Carolina is a run-based offense – 291 rushes, 270 throws – and Williams continues to be a back who has strength through the line and then explosion at the second level. He and Stevan Ridley are very similar. Newton is good for 4 carries and 30 yards per game. New England will have to use the principles it’s been using against mobile quarterbacks – keeping Newton in the pocket and off the edge – for success. Newton can outrun linebackers and run over safeties so it’s a big night for contain, stopping the tight end and getting the hell off the field on third down where Carolina is converting on 46.2 percent (they’re also 5 for 7 on fourth down).  
 
The Patriots defense did what it needed to against the Panthers rushing attack- 16 carries for 41 yards for the backs – but Newton killed them with third-down scrambles, going for 62 yards on seven carries. He was also tremendously efficient, going 19 for 28 for 209 yards and throwing for three touchdowns. Steve Smith got in Aqib Talib’s head early and really rendered the Patriots best defender over the first portion of the season ineffective in his return. Brilliant as Peyton Manning is, the Patriots will be happy to see a quarterback who is going to remain in the pocket after chasing Newton around all night.  
 
THE KICKING GAME
Panthers kicker is Graham Gano and punter is Brad Nortmann. Gano’s got a big leg – 5 for 5 outside 50 and only one miss this season. Nortmann is pretty effective with 17 of his 37 punts downed inside the 20. The Panthers can be generous on punt returns. Look for Julian Edelman to get some yards if the Patriots can force some punts. Ryan Allen was just OK against the Steelers. Ted Ginn is Carolina’s main returner. He is fast as hell.
 
Both kickers made their field goals and the kickoff return game of Ted Ginn was kept under wraps. The Patriots didn’t force enough punts to get Edelman live, though Danny Amendola had a nice return as the short man on a punt into the wind.

PATRIOTS SICK BAY
OUT: Alfonzo Dennard, CB; Steve Gregory, S. QUESTIONABLE: Kyle Arrington, CB; Aqib Talib, CB; Leon Washington, RB. PROBABLE; Danny Amendola, WR; Tom Brady, QB; Rob Gronkowski, TE; Matt Slater, WR.
 
Michael Hoomanawanui left with a knee issue and didn’t return and Talib wound up on the sidelines for the final Panthers drive with an unspecified injury.
 
PANTHERS SICK BAY
OUT: Chase Blackburn, LB; Ben Hartsock, TE; Chris Scott, G. QUESTIONABLE: Drayton Florence, CB; PROBABLE: Dwan Edwards, DT; Jordan Gross, OT; Mike Tolbert, FB.
 
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
All season long, the Panthers have gotten the jump on opponents. They are outscoring the oppsition 38-8 in the first quarter, 103-42 in the first half. If the Patriots can get the jump on Carolina and put them in the uncomfortable position of being in chase mode, that will be a big step for the Patriots. Because so much of what Carolina’s been able to accomplish in terms of offensive efficiency is traceable to their playing from ahead.
 
Carolina again had the opportunity to play from ahead most of the game, leading 7-0, 10-0 and then – at the half – 10-3. The Panthers never had to deviate from their game plan and cause Newton to get out of his comfort zone because the New England offense kept shooting itself in the foot in the early stages of the game.
 
PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP . . .
Greg Olsen. Over the past two games, Carolina’s been pounding it to the perimeter – 38 throws to LaFell and Smith. Olsen’s seen just eight passes his way. With the Patriots down a safety – Steve Gregory – and still showing signs of difficulty in communication on the back end and in covering at the linebacker level, you give it to Olsen in this one.
 
Olsen had five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown. His biggest play, however, may have been drawing a defensive holding penalty on Devin McCourty by running into McCourty, locking up McCourty’s arm then waving his free arm to beg for a flag. That play extended the Panthers’ go-ahead drive.
 
PANTHERS GOTTA STOP . . .
Danny Amendola. My suspicion is that there will be such preoccupation with Rob Gronkowski, where Shane Vereen is and the Patriots running game that Amendola is going to be left untended. And have a huge game.
 
Amendola was trumped by Shane Vereen in terms of importance to the offense but he did play effectively with six catches for 45 yards, many of them in tight spots.
 
DON'T BE SURPRISED IF . . .
The Patriots are kneeling early in the fourth and killing clock.
 
That didn’t happen at all.
 
THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
“There’s nothing better than being in a stadium and, towards the end, it’s deflated.” – Rob Ninkovich on playing a big game on the road.
 
At the end of the game, there was elation, not deflation.

THAT SUMS IT UP PANTHERS STYLE
 “You know that this is your opportunity. God is blessing you to make your name, make your legacy against players like this. On one hand you have the utmost respect, but on the other you look forward to seeing what you’re made of.” – Mike Mitchell, Panthers safety, on facing Tom Brady.
 
The Panthers did find out what they were made of. Stronger stuff than I figured.
 
THE WINNER IS . . .
Patriots 27, Panthers 13
 
Panthers 24, Patriots 20