Panthers-Patriots Preview

BY foxsports • December 16, 2009

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 DeAngelo 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 will be under center again against the Patriots. Delhomme has been ruled out with a broken finger.

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.

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