By the time the New England Patriots next take the field for game action, it will have been a long time since they last played.
Fifteen days between regular season games is uncommon -- it’s happened only once before to Bill Belichick during his two tenures as an NFL head coach -- but that’s precisely how long the Patriots have to prepare for their upcoming opponent, the Carolina Panthers.
When the regular-season schedule was released, this game was naturally of note because it was the Patriots' only appearance on "Monday Night Football" (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
But few foresaw that this Monday’s matchup would rank as such an intriguing game. But that is the case now, with the 7-2 Patriots taking on the hard-charging Panthers, winners of five straight games and now very much in the thick of the NFC South race.
A five-game winning streak, highlighted by a Week 10 win against the 49ers, has the Panthers thinking big and aspiring to reach the playoffs for the first time with Cam Newton under center. While they’ve done much to win over a strong contingent of NFL onlookers, some still doubt Carolina has what it takes to sustain success.
Whichever team comes out on top on Monday will make a strong statement leading into the stretch run of the regular season.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for.
1. Matching up with the front seven. Tom Brady is on the record with how he feels about the Panthers' front seven, declaring it to be as good as any other in the NFL. Carolina has been one of the most difficult defenses to run against and ranks near the top in sacks this season, generating 29 through the first nine games. The biggest test for the Patriots could be slowing down the bookend rushers for Carolina, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, each of whom totaled double-digits sacks last season. The center of the front seven is linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is certain to be around the ball all evening long. The Patriots' offensive line will have its work cut out with this group.
2. Testing the Panthers' secondary. Yes, the Panthers' defense has been sensational this season, but a little context is worth examining as it relates to their opponents. The question we have is whether this group has faced an elite passing attack, something that -- at least in Week 9 -- we saw the Patriots capable of becoming. The names aren’t particularly familiar in Carolina’s secondary, but it’s a blend of both veteran and young contributors that the Patriots need to test on Monday night. With the potential return of Shane Vereen, the Patriots could have their full complement of skill players on the field for the first time this season.
3. Injury headlines. There are two players that highlight the injury storylines this week: cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) and Vereen (wrist). Talib has not played since Week 6 and has practiced nearly every day since. He hasn’t suited up for a game, however, leaving the Patriots without a top secondary player. It would appear that he’s closing in on a return in the not-too-distant future. As it relates to Vereen, he’s eligible to play on Monday night though he has still not been activated from the short-term injured reserve list. The Patriots could activate Vereen all the way up until Monday afternoon. If he does play, he’ll give the Patriots their best option out of the backfield in the team’s hurry up approach, as was showcased during a career day back in Week 1.
4. Containing Cam. Not to be overlooked (by any means) is Newton, a tantalizing talent that can hurt a defense with his arm and his legs. Newton’s completion percentage has risen to a career-best 62.7 percent thus far in 2013, while he's also posting his best ever quarterback rating. He’s thrown eight picks already, however, including three in his past two games, so the Patriots will look to take advantage of his mistakes and extend their streak of games with a turnover forced to 37. At the goal line, Newton is one of many options the Panthers have to plunge into the end zone, and his ability to use his legs makes the play-action passing game effective for Carolina, too.
5. Fast starts. The Patriots always emphasize starting fast, but that will be critical this Monday. The Panthers have not allowed a first-quarter touchdown in 12 straight regular season games and have surrendered the fewest points in the first quarter of any team this season. The Patriots' offense will try to carry over the momentum from the past three halves, as they’ve scored at least 24 points in each one of them. Carolina’s passing offense isn’t particularly explosive, making it unlikely for the two to engage in a shootout, but the Panthers' defense is stingy enough that falling behind early is a recipe for disaster for any opponent. Early efficiency will be key for the Patriots.