Panthers much more than relevant

Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a highly anticipated ESPN "Monday Night Football" game against the Panthers in Charlotte, N.C.

Mike: Tedy, this is a familiar script that we've seen over the last decade-plus here in New England -- the Patriots playing in prime time against an upstart team that can further prove itself with a win against one of the NFL's most successful franchises. It never really gets old.

Tedy: The word of the year for the Panthers has been "relevant." In his news conferences, head coach Ron Rivera has used the word, and last week after their 10-9 road win over the 49ers, players were saying "We're relevant now." So this year has really been a fight for relevancy for them. After what they did last week against the 49ers, you can say they are relevant. They're a team that I think should be taken seriously as a playoff contender, and one that has all elements to beat the Patriots.

Mike: The Panthers, under first-year general manager Dave Gettleman, are a great story in 2013 and represent, in many ways, what is great about the NFL. Every team has a chance. I'm not sure many had the Panthers being NFC contenders at the start of the year. This is the first "Monday Night Football" game in Charlotte since 2008. After some hard times in recent years, the Panthers are on the rise and it seems like a valid question to ask how they will respond to this stage.

Tedy: Charlotte isn't used to having a game like this. It is a team that has become relevant and is fighting to maintain relevancy, which can be more difficult sometimes than becoming relevant. This should be one of the most exciting games in that stadium in a long time. I don't think the question is how the Patriots will respond, as a lot of these players have been in plenty of big games. I think it's a matter of the Panthers and what are they going to do. The expectations of the fan base have been raised exponentially, and we should see that based on the anticipated atmosphere.

Mike: Tedy, you mentioned that the Panthers are a team that has all the elements to beat the Patriots. Let's touch on what you view those areas to be.

Tedy: It starts with a front four that can rush and get there without the blitz. They also have two linebackers who can cover, first with Luke Kuechly -- who I think is playing some of the best football in the league at the middle linebacker position -- then with Thomas Davis. A first-round draft choice in 2005, Davis tore his ACL three times in three straight seasons at one point, but he's fought hard to get back and is playing good football. Overall, this is one of the best front sevens in the NFL, and they also have a solid offensive line, even though they've had injuries and have had defensive linemen making the transition to the offensive line, with right guard Nate Chandler making his first career start last Sunday.

Mike: Since the Panthers' 4-3 defense seems to be the more dominant unit, let's get a little bit deeper into what makes it so effective and how it complements a power running offense and special-teams unit that can produce big plays.

Tedy: There are different ways to measure a defense, but as you know, I've been putting together my own "defensive index" in recent weeks that highlights the areas I think are most important: points allowed on defense, defensive turnovers, third down and red zone. The Panthers rank second by a comfortable margin this week. Up the middle, they hit it big with the drafting of Star Lotulelei (first round, Utah, 14th overall), who plays in a rotation with veterans Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole and rookie Kawann Short (second round, Purdue, 44th overall). That's a group of defensive tackles that is stout on the inside. Then you have Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who may be the most underrated pass-rushing duo in the league, at end.

Mike: You can see they're tough to run on, as they had some big short-yardage stops last Sunday against the 49ers. It's why I think the Patriots will attempt to soften up the box with some spread formations and try to get the ball out of Tom Brady's hands quickly. The matchup advantage for the Patriots could be against the Panthers' secondary, if they can hold up at the line of scrimmage.

Tedy: This is an unsung secondary. There are a lot of names you probably haven't heard of. Do they benefit from having a solid front seven? Yes, they do. But they work together well.

Mike: The linebackers look tough, and of course, we're familiar with the man in the middle, Kuechly, from his time at Boston College.

Tedy: I really think he is one of the elite linebackers in the league, possibly the best. I know there are good ones this year, you see them on film, like NaVorro Bowman (49ers) and Derrick Johnson (Chiefs), and Kuechly is right there. I've been very impressed this year by his diagnosis skills, the way he's able to read the offenses and figure out the answers to the test before the ball is snapped. He'll see a short motion and his football education tells him what the possibilities are from that short motion, and he figures it out as soon as the ball is snapped. He's not really a linebacker you can deceive because of his sharp diagnosis skills, his football intelligence, the way he processes information. It's that linebacker football equation:

The down and distance + the personnel grouping + the formation of the offense + the variable of motion and shifting + the body language from the offensive linemen + the backfield set = play "X."

And once the answer is reached, you attack and finish! Kuechly processes the linebacker equation very quickly and has the speed, tackling ability and hands to finish with a big play versus the run or the pass.

Mike: Rivera compared his smarts to another great linebacker he once coached, Brian Urlacher. In 21 career games at middle linebacker, Kuechly is averaging 12.5 tackles per game. He teams with Thomas Davis for an excellent one-two punch at linebacker.

Tedy: I'm fired up for Davis for what he's able to do this year. The play he made last Sunday against the 49ers -- putting a big hit on running back Kendall Hunter and forcing a fumble -- when you think about what he's been through with the three knee surgeries in three years, this guy probably should've been Comeback Player of the Year last year. He's continued to work, setback after setback after setback, and now he's playing on one of the best defenses in the league and is one of the main reasons the defense is so good. Not only can Davis make plays in the box, as he did on Hunter, but he is a very good cover linebacker. I've seen Davis do good things in coverage and I've seen Kuechly run down the field and cover tight ends, matching up one-on-one against Tony Gonzalez. So which linebacker will draw the assignment to cover Rob Gronkowski? That will be interesting to watch. Or do they try to use a safety or various combo-coverage concepts?

Mike: Fair or not, one question that lingers is how much of the Panthers' defensive success is a result of the competition they've played? Not too many high-powered offenses, and one could argue that the Patriots represent their toughest test to date because of their ability to threaten all three levels in the passing game. That said, the defense is nicely complemented by the offense, which grinds out yards; Carolina leads the NFL in time of possession (33:48).

Tedy: They have the best backfield in the NFL. I say backfield because it's a full house with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and also Cam Newton. Every one of these players has the ability to do a multitude of things. Tolbert, for example, has done everything from catch screen passes to shovel passes to direct runs. He is a wild card in the sense that he's used in a lot of different ways. He might be listed as a fullback, but you could just as easily list him as an "OW" -- offensive weapon. He also had a big hit last week when he knocked out 49ers safety Eric Reid in one of the biggest collisions I've seen all year. He's physical, as is the entire Panthers team, on offense and defense. DeAngelo Williams is a guy who can get outside and get the edge, a very smooth and powerful runner. And Stewart is big, more of a bruiser at 5-foot-10 and 235 pounds. They run the triple option with a full-house backfield (Newton in the pistol, with an inverted wishbone formation surrounding him), and they also run an old-school triple option at you. The Patriots are going to have a lot to focus on when it comes to that run game.

Mike: That's why I think the Patriots, who have been in sub packages 68 percent of the time this season, will play most of this game in their 5-2 defense/3-4 base defense. That's their biggest lineup, with defensive linemen Chris Jones, Isaac Sopoaga and Joe Vellano, then with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich at outside linebacker, and Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower at inside linebacker. This is going to be a physical game, and stopping the run is priority No. 1.

Tedy: A big key for the front seven is going to be reading keys and trusting what they see in front of them. It's "responsibility football" because when you watch the Panthers, you see a lot of well-designed runs. DeAngelo Williams' 27-yard run last Sunday against the 49ers was a counter off the option action. So they get you with the option, run the triple option, they run the lead right at you, and on the touchdown they counter-actioned off that play series. Watching Carolina games this year, it's not uncommon to see linebackers get enamored with what's going on in the backfield. They might watch Newton, or get caught watching the play-action fake, and the next thing you know the tackle and guard pull out and get angles on you on a quarterback sweep -- like you saw in their 34-10 win over the Falcons (fourth quarter, 9:07 remaining). If you get enamored with all the smoke and mirrors in the backfield and fail to read keys, that's what happens.

Mike: The Panthers have been able to run it despite being hit hard by injuries along the offensive line.

Tedy: I respect this offensive line so much because of the complexity and the variation of plays they have to block for. They have a power running game, a college read-option element, dropback pass elements, and they have a complex screen game to go along with a quarterback in Newton who will stand in the pocket and deliver the ball. He also has enough athletic ability and size to stay alive and scramble. Those are all the aspects of the offensive game plan they have to block for, and they do it all well.

Mike: We've made it this far without really getting to Newton, the franchise quarterback now in his third season. One area that has impressed me with him is his ability to convert some clutch third-down plays. The Panthers rank third in the NFL on third down (54 of 117, 46.2 percent).

Tedy: Ability oozes from this guy. He has a very strong arm. He's a very strong football player who reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger in terms of the difficulty in sacking him -- he's 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds and he's stiff-armed rushers who have had a clean shot and still been able to complete a pass downfield. Just getting there isn't enough against Newton, you still have to bring him down. Cam has the ability to have a big game throwing the ball, but he also seems to be understanding what makes this team successful, and it's not about him throwing for 300 yards every single game. Against the 49ers, he threw for only 169 yards. His highest passing total of the year was against the Cardinals (308) in a loss. This is about the maturing of a quarterback and realizing what team he has behind him. He's understanding how good his defense is, how physical his running game can be, and how he is a huge part of that physical running game. He's realizing what it takes to play winning football, not "statistic-driven football."

Mike: His go-to receiver is Steve Smith, who leads the team with 42 receptions for 450 yards. With Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib nearing a return after missing the last three and a half games with a hip injury, a Talib vs. Smith matchup would be fun to watch.

Tedy: One of the reasons that running game is so good is that their receivers buy into blocking, and Smith prides himself on that. Smith isn't just a receiver; he's a football player. He has to be one of the most respected receivers in the game from defensive players. Ever since he played against us, in Super Bowl XXXVIII, he was a guy whose toughness was so obvious on tape and in the Super Bowl. It was a young Steve Smith back then. Has he lost a little physical ability since then? I'm sure, but his mental toughness is still at an all-time high.

Mike: It's not an explosive passing offense, but tight end Greg Olsen is another tough matchup, while 2010 third-round pick Brandon LaFell and speedster Ted Ginn are the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers.

Tedy: Olsen hasn't been a huge presence in recent weeks. He was targeted only three times last Sunday against the 49ers and has totaled eight receptions in the last three games. You usually see him involved a little more than that, and he's someone the Panthers might look to in this game and say, "We want to get him going," especially with play-action and the Patriots' big linebackers, who struggle in coverage at times. Ginn is a player with a lot of speed, someone you might have a particular play in mind -- a speed sweep, a wide receiver reverse -- to utilize his speed to get him on the edges, because that's where he wants to go. He can be the gadget guy at times. Looking at my notes, they ran a flea-flicker tight end screen in Week 6 against Minnesota (second quarter, 7:06 left). So you have that, the triple option, a little shovel pass to Mike Tolbert, Ginn on gadget plays ... offensive coordinator Mike Shula has been as creative as he possibly can while also not straying far from their roots, which is a power running game.

Mike: Ginn is dangerous on special teams. When you look at key plays from their win over the 49ers, his 25-yard punt return was one of them; it set up what turned out to be the game-winning field goal.

Tedy: The book on Ted Ginn is that he's a "circle-you-up" returner, that's what people have always said. He wants to get you to come compressed on him, then get out to the edge. But that critical return against the 49ers was right up in the middle. He turned into a "positive-yardage returner" on that play, which is when you don't trust your speed to get outside and avoid being hit; all you do is get the most positive yards you can as a north-south returner. Has he added this element to his game, or was that just situational? I don't know, but it seemed uncharacteristic of him to do that. But obviously he's matured a bit and maybe that's part of his game, and it makes him more dangerous.

Mike: Speaking of dangerous, Tedy, the Panthers have been just that in the first quarter of games. Opponents have scored just eight points in the first quarter this year and Bill Belichick has talked about the importance of getting off to a fast start. Another statistic that stands out is the Panthers' success on fourth down (5 of 7), which has earned Rivera a nickname of Riverboat Ron.

Tedy: Rivera said himself that he's a calculated risk taker. He's mindful of the situation and circumstances, but if he feels in his gut that he can make a fourth-and-short, he trusts that offensive line and the physicality of the running game. So just because you stop them on third down, that doesn't mean you're going to the sideline and you can start drinking Gatorade and the punt team is coming in.

Mike: The Patriots are well-rested coming off the bye, and it looks as if some key players are returning to full health. Between that and the sense that the offense will find some success with a spread-it-out approach with the ball coming out of Tom Brady's hands quickly, I'm leaning Patriots. The offensive line is key. Patriots 24, Panthers 17.

Tedy: Bye weeks are much different now than they use to be. The fact that the Patriots had six consecutive days off last week leads me to believe there will be some rust and a slow start is possible. I feel the Panthers are very relevant at this point. They match up well in some key areas with the Patriots. This defense is very capable of getting to Tom Brady with its front four. The Panthers will maintain their relevancy. Panthers 28, Patriots 27.