The New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers are set to square off on Monday Night Football this upcoming week, and it’s one of the most highly-anticipated matchups of the entire season. The Patriots are currently 7-2 despite some ugly wins mixed in there, but it looks like the offense is finally starting to hit its stride. A big key to the Patriots success this season has been its much-improved defense, backed by the play of star defensive backs Devin McCourty and Aqib Talib. The depth and solid backup talent has allowed the Patriots to overcome the losses of stars Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo for the season, and this team could be scary if it continues to progress on offense. Even though starting strong safety Steve Gregory is expected to miss this week’s game, the Patriots will be getting key RB Shane Vereen back.
The Carolina Panthers have been one of the league’s most impressive success stories, and they look poised to secure a wild card spot. No stranger to overcoming injuries on defense, the Panthers defensive backfield looked in dire straits at one point this season. But thanks to the play of resurgent veteran Mike Mitchell, who has become a huge leader and key player on this team, and the always-underrated Quintin Mikell at safety, the Panthers pass defense has been among the best in the NFL. They are averaging the fifth-lowest yards per pass play and have almost two times as many INTs as touchdowns allowed (13 to seven).
On offense, the Panthers are taking much less risks, and they are designing better plays for Cam Newton. Mike Shula is doing a much better job in his second stint as an offensive coordinator in the league, and the Panthers aren’t playing as “cute” on offense as they did under current Cleveland Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski. But like Chud, Ron Rivera is going for it on fourth downs more often, embracing the new-age side of the game by taking smart gambles.
It’s crazy to think that Rivera was on the hot seat at one point, and I always chalked that up to some impatient fans who were unwilling to recognize all the good Rivera has done. His solid coaching has shone through, as the Panthers have all the signs of a well-coached team. They are quickly turning things around, winning more games than expected, committing less turnovers, and the defensive scheme looks beautiful. Give plenty of credit to Sean McDermott, who is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spoke about the Panthers on Salk & Holley and did a perfect job of describing the Panthers, “They’ve really done a good job in the last month or so everywhere. They’ve been scoring. I know they only got 10 against San Francisco, but they’ve been in the 30s quite a bit. Defensively, they have a good front, they take the ball away, they have a lot of turnovers and they do a good job in the red area, so they’re just a good team in all phases. … They’re a solid team, they’re well coached, they’re fundamentally sound, they don’t give you a lot of easy plays, they don’t beat themselves.”
Well-coached and “fundamentally sound”, there you have it. The Panthers won an impressive 10-9 game over the defending NFC Champs, and they are gunning for one of the AFC’s top squads. I usually don’t look forward to Mondays, but I’ll be looking forward to this matchup between two teams that are well-coached, avoid committing turnovers at all costs, key in on the fundamentals, and are built on depth. By the way, watch the Panthers front seven closely, because they are absolutely amazing. With an actually competent DT duo for the first time since 2008 (rookies Star Lotuelelei and Kawann Short will make an excellent pairing for several years to come), the linebackers are getting more of a chance to shine. Plus, the Panthers have one of the best DE duos in the NFL.