Panthers-Patriots Preview

Back-to-back losses have been rare enough for the New England

Patriots in recent seasons, but three straight defeats are almost

unheard of under coach Bill Belichick.

The team will try to avoid its first skid of that length in more

than seven years as it hosts the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, with

New England looking to keep sole possession of the AFC East lead

and remain unbeaten at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots will also be hoping to correct some of their recent

problems, which weren’t helped after star wide receiver Randy Moss

and three other players were reportedly sent home from practice

Wednesday after showing up late for an 8 a.m. team meeting.

Linebackers Adalius Thomas, Gary Guyton and Derrick Burgess were

the other players disciplined by Belichick, who has typically had

no problem getting the most out of his players following a

defeat.

New England’s losses to New Orleans and Miami the last two weeks

marked the second time they dropped consecutive games since 2002.

The Patriots haven’t lost three straight since a four-game slide

from Sept. 29-Oct. 27, 2002.

After the latest loss, quarterback Tom Brady said the Patriots

don’t always show enough fight.

“It’s not about playing hard on Sundays. I mean, we do that,”

said Brady, who has been dealing with finger and shoulder injuries

in addition to the Tuesday birth of a son with wife Gisele

Bundchen.

“I think what coach tells us and what I was alluding to was

probably more of just the other six days of the week,” Brady added.

“We’ve got to make the commitment to each other. … I think at

times we all feel a little bit sorry for ourselves and you’re beat

up and you’re tired and you’re sore and it’s the end of the year

and you go, ‘Why is (Belichick) doing this?’ But, in the end,

you’re either gaining ground or you’re losing ground, and I always

prefer to be gaining ground.”

The Patriots (7-5) have been quickly losing ground in the

standings lately, as the New York Jets and Miami have each cut what

once seemed like a safe division lead to one game. New England has

already matched its loss total from last season, which Brady missed

almost entirely due to a knee injury.

The team had been hoping his return would bring back the form

that brought the Patriots a 16-0 season in 2007 and three Super

Bowl victories earlier in the decade, including one over the

Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

While Brady has thrown for more than 300 yards in six of the

last seven games, he has also been picked off four times in the

last two and New England’s revamped defense has allowed nearly 700

passing yards in that stretch.

“We need to stop living in the past,” running back Laurence

Maroney said Monday. “We ain’t the ’07 team. We ain’t the ’03 team.

We ain’t the ’01 team. We’re the ’09 team and we’ve got to play

with what we have and make a name for ourselves.”

Several big names are gone from the Patriots’ defense due to

offseason trades and retirements, and the replacements have

struggled in recent weeks.

After the unbeaten Saints gashed the unit in a 38-17 win Nov.

30, Miami quarterback Chad Henne threw for a career-high 335 yards

last Sunday, leading the Dolphins on a late drive for the winning

field goal to beat New England 22-21.

A meager pass rush has been one of the problems, as the Patriots

are tied for 28th in the league with 20 sacks. But they’ve also had

issues with a young secondary.

“Our pass rush could be better with better coverage and our pass

coverage could be better with better rush,” Belichick said. “The

more those two can come together, the better on pass defense we’ll

be. When one of them breaks down that creates problems with the

other one.”

A pair of factors may bode well for the Patriots on Sunday. For

one, they’ll be returning to Foxborough, where they are 6-0 this

season. Brady has won his last 18 home starts dating to 2006.

Also, New England’s reeling pass defense may have a relatively

light load against the run-heavy Panthers, who are hoping to get

running back D’Angelo Williams back after he missed Sunday’s 16-6

win over Tampa Bay with an ankle problem.

Quarterback Matt Moore started that game in place of the injured

Jake Delhomme and is expected to be under center again against the

Patriots.

Even without Williams, Carolina relied heavily on the NFL’s

third-ranked rush offense against the Buccaneers, with Jonathan

Stewart racking up 120 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.

“We were running the ball well, a lot of quick-game stuff,

getting the ball out fast,” Moore said. “That makes it easy on any

quarterback.”

The Panthers (5-7) are realistically out of playoff contention,

however, in part due to a banged-up defense, which may use a 13th

different starting lineup this week if defensive end Tyler

Brayton’s concussion sidelines him Sunday.

“Each year it’s a certain team that goes through this,”

defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. “This year it just happened to

bite us.”

The Panthers last played at New England on Oct. 29, 1995,

winning 20-17 in overtime.