For the second straight Sunday, Patriots fans had to make due without their team.
But they’ll all be rewarded Monday, as the Patriots (7-2) take on the Panthers (6-3) in North Carolina (8:40 p.m., ESPN).
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New England comes into this game off its most impressive offensive performance of the season – a 55-31 win over the Steelers in Week 9. But perhaps even more impressive is Carolina’s 10-9 win over the 49ers in San Francisco in Week 10.
With that win, the Panthers officially became the hottest team in the NFC, having won five games in a row. Cam Newton, while not putting up the crazy fantasy football numbers he has in the past, has his team on a path to the postseason despite having started the year 1-3.
Can the Patriots halt the streak? Here are three things to look for:
1. Managing Newton
After throwing three interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 6, Newton has thrown a total of three interceptions in the five games leading into Monday night’s game. The Panthers have scored 30-plus points in four of those five games, and have also won those same four games by more than 14 points. But even with all those points, Newton hasn’t amassed 250 passing yards in any of them. The Patriots should have Aqib Talib back and that should make things tough on Newton. Still, the Patriots’ defensive line and linebackers have to also respect the former Heisman Trophy winner’s ability to run. Newton has 266 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns this season. Keeping him in the pocket and forcing him to throw under pressure is important.
2. Panthers D – really that good?
It’s a good thing the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola back healthy. They may even have Shane Vereen back too. They’re going to need them all. The Panthers rank second in the NFL in rushing defense and fifth in the NFL in pass defense. Carolina has benefitted from getting ahead early in the game and owning time of possession. If the Patriots offense jumps out to an early lead, that will put Carolina in an unfamiliar situation both offensively and defensively. Bill Belichick knows Gronkowski’s blocking is key against a tough defense.
“I think Rob gives good balance to his position. He can block, he can run, he can catch,” Belichick said. “He creates, gives us balance in whatever we ask him to do: pass protection, run blocking, possession passing, downfield passing, red area.”
3. Bye week return
Under Belichick, the Pats are 10-3 after the bye week, and 9-1 over the last 10 seasons. They’re also 5-1 on the road after the bye week. Since 2010, they’re 24-1 in the second half of the season, too. Not to say that what happened in 2004 has any bearing on this season, but the point is Belichick and the Patriots will be more than prepared.