Patriots-Panthers Preview

The last time Tom Brady and the New England Patriots took the
field, they put up the highest point total in the NFL this
year.

It’s highly unlikely they will come close to duplicating that
effort Monday night.

The Patriots will go on the road to face a Carolina Panthers
team that has won five straight and flexed its defensive muscles by
allowing the NFC’s fewest points.

It hasn’t been an easy season for Brady, who owns the lowest
passer rating of his career at 82.7 and has been frustrated often
by an inexperienced group of targets that has dropped 12.2 percent
of catchable balls for the league’s worst mark.

New England (7-2) put aside those problems for a 55-31 rout of
Pittsburgh on Nov. 3 as Brady enjoyed season highs of 432 yards
passing and four touchdowns.

Now the AFC East leaders come out of their bye to face the
Panthers, who are yielding 12.8 points per game and held defending
NFC champion San Francisco without a touchdown in last Sunday’s
10-9 road victory.

“They’re one of the best defenses in the league,” Brady said.
“We have to play really well. I think our execution has to be at
its best.”

Carolina (6-3) has outscored foes 140-57 during its longest win
streak since a six-game run Oct. 3-Nov. 13, 2005. Linebacker Luke
Kuechly earned conference defensive player of the week honors for
an 11-tackle performance as part of a defense that sacked Colin
Kaepernick six times.

The second-year player out of Boston College now gets his first
chance to face Brady.

“Tom Brady is a very cerebral guy, he’s been around a while, he
knows where he’s going with the ball, he’s smart, he understands
defenses,” Kuechly said. “So we’ve just got to do a good job of
playing our job, doing our responsibilities and make sure we’re in
the right spot.”

Kuechly and unheralded safety Mike Mitchell each have three of
the Panthers’ 13 interceptions that tie the club for the league’s
most.

The Patriots have also been boosted by Stevan Ridley’s six
rushing touchdowns over his last four games. He will face a
Carolina front that allows an average of 82.0 yards on the ground
for the NFL’s second-lowest mark.

Just getting Brady enough snaps could be a challenge since Cam
Newton has guided an offense that leads the NFL in time of
possession at 33:48 per game heading into his first matchup with
the Patriots.

”He’s playing very efficiently. He does a good job,” said
Patriots coach Bill Belichick about Newton. ”He’s obviously a
threat with the ball in his hands to run. He can make all the
throws. He can put the ball on the sideline.”

Carolina has rushed for an average of 120.4 yards during its win
streak while the Patriots allow 128.2 yards per game on the ground
for the league’s third-worst mark.

Belichick believes his team will be prepared for Newton having
already faced Buffalo’s EJ Manuel and the Jets’ Geno Smith.

”I think that a lot of the plays that Carolina runs we’ve seen
from Buffalo and the Jets,” Belichick said. ”The fact that we
have seen some of those plays, we’ve worked on the basic blocking
schemes and how to fit on them, where everybody needs to be.”

Newton owns a 67.4 completion percentage over the last five
games. He has helped the Panthers convert a league-high 36.4
percent of third downs of at least 10 yards, and they are third on
all third downs at 46.2 percent.

He’ll try to avoid a New England pass rush that has produced 29
sacks to match Carolina and is led by Chandler Jones’ 8 1/2.

Jones is tied for seventh in the league in sacks with the
Panthers’ Charles Johnson, who forms an impressive pass rushing duo
with fellow defensive end Greg Hardy (six sacks).

”That’s our style of defense,” Hardy said. ”We dominate. We
take what we want. We do what we want.”

Those pass rushers have clearly been helped by the additions of
rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.

”We’re playing young guys who have learned very quickly,”
coach Ron Rivera said. ”These guys know what we want them to
do.”

Both teams have been very disciplined with New England
committing 41 accepted penalties and Carolina 44 to rank in the
NFL’s top six.

Brady is 13-4 on Monday nights, an event the veteran still
enjoys.

“Monday Night Football is always pretty cool, especially when
you play a really good team on Monday Night Football,” he said.
“It’s a fun night.”

The Patriots have won three of five all-time meetings, including
32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.