Every season, there’s at least one Patriots game that comes out of nowhere. It’s a game that barely gets noticed when the schedule is released in April. A game that’s glossed over without much thought in August. It’s a game that, eventually, almost suddenly, materializes into much more — in this case, one of the most compelling and significant matchups of the entire year.
Of course, this sort of thing isn’t unique to New England. That’s just life in the ever-changing, up-and-down NFL. When the schedule was released last spring, no one in Denver was thinking: “Ooh, Week 11 against the Chiefs! Game of the year, baby!” No one in Cincinnati figured that Week 11 would be spent fighting off the upstart Browns for first place in the AFC North. But this is New England, so we’re talking about New England —
Week 11: Patriots at Panthers.
“Monday night in Carolina . . . what in the hell!?”
That was the only reasonable reaction way back in April. The game was just so random, the rivalry so meaningless. Not unless we’d all been transported back to November 2004, and Jake Delhomme was under center instead of running an alligator-hunting business down on the bayou. (Note: That’s not confirmed.)
Interconference Monday Night Football games are pretty rare as it is. Recently, most seasons have featured only one. Back in 2009, it was Ravens at Packers. In 2010, it was Brett Favre and the Vikings against Brett Favre’s former team (the Jets). In 2011, it was Steelers at 49ers. Last season, it was Peyton’s Broncos in Atlanta. All high profile matchups or historic rivalries — or both.
Then, this year, MNF opened the interconference floodgates. Dolphins at Saints. Jets at Falcons. Last week’s miserable Dolphins-at-Bucs game. Looking ahead, the Ravens visit the Lions in Week 15.
Still, when the schedule originally came out, all four of those matchups somehow, in some way, made more sense than Patriots at Panthers.
But here we are. Here it is. This is exciting.
The Pats are 7-2, and are all but guaranteed to cruise to another AFC East title. But in the big picture, nothing has change since this season started. You may feel a little less confident in the defense, after injuries to Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, not to mention Aqib Talib’s inability to stay on the field. You may feel a little more confident in the offense, now that Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are back, and Aaron Dobson continues to improve. But overall, the attitude to surrounding the Pats is what it was.
Yes, they have a chance. They could very easily catch a few breaks and end up back in the Super Bowl. But they could just as easily draw a tough matchup and flame out in the first or second round. At 7-2, there’s no reason to panic. But this particular 7-2 hasn’t altered expectations. The Saints game was New England’s only victory against a legitimate contender, and that was at home, the product of Tom Brady’s last-second heroics. The Pats have played only two road games against teams who currently have a .500 or better record, and lost them both.
In other words, there’s an opportunity to make a statement tonight against the Panthers. Regardless how much you want to buy into Carolina’s current five-game winning streak or their long-term 2013 prospects, for the Pats to take the field tonight, on this stage, against that defense, and impose their will would go along towards silencing the doubters. Or, at the very least, appease the doubters. And it will leave the Pats with yet another opportunity, next week against the Broncos, to firmly establish themselves among the best teams in the league.
Even if they lose to Carolina, that Broncos game will tell the story. It’s obviously and ultimately more significant than this one. But tonight’s game is a great warmup. It’s a test. And this team could use one.
Offensively, even with the return of Shane Vereen, rushing yards will be hard to come by. Carolina’s run defense is ranked second in the NFL. They’ve allowed only one 100-yard rusher all season (CJ Spiller). Other than that Bills game, only one other team has combined for 100 yards on the ground against this Panther 'D'. They held Marshawn Lynch to 43 yards. They held Adrian Peterson to 63 yards.
To combat that, expect the Pats to spread things out and allow Brady’s short passing game to become the de-facto running game. Heavy doses of Gronk and Amendola. Maybe Brady will rekindle his relationship with Julian Edelman. Now that Austin Collie is out of the picture, it might be nice to get Kenbrell Thompkins back in, too. No one on this team stretches the field better than Thompkins, and his presence will create more room underneath.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers love to run, which is unfortunate for the Pats because only Jacksonville, Chicago and Atlanta are allowing more yards on the ground this season than New England. As a result of their commitment to the ground game, the Panthers lead the league in time of possession. They rotate three capable backs --DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert -- and have a quarterback who’s a better running back that most team’s No. 1.
If the Pats can’t step up and stop the run, Cam Newton becomes even more dangerous than he already is. Steve Smith is older but still a threat; his 42 receptions would rank second on the Patriots. WR Brandon LaFell has come into his own on the other side. To round out the Panthers’ passing attack, Greg Olsen is one of the most underrated tight ends in the league. And it doesn’t help that both Steve Gregory and Alfonzo Dennard are out of commission for the Pats.
Carolina’s been hit with some injuries, as well, although nothing that can compare to the hits New England has taken. The Panthers will be without starting linebacker Chase Blackburn and right guard Chris Scott. And backup tight end Ben Harstock, who’s not a receiving threat but is an important blocker in the ground game.
But obviously, once the game begins, injuries don’t matter. No one's interested in excuses. It’s all about the game and the opportunity at hand.
And tonight, that opportunity, however unlikely it might, looms large for the Pats.
Can’t wait to talk about it tomorrow.
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