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Patriots - Featured Stories Archives for 2013-11

Patriots Overtake Broncos In Overtime

FOXBOROUGH – This game was anything but Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning.

It was turnover versus turnover. It was one team doing great in the first half and the other team doing great in the second half. It was Knowshon Moreno trying his best to look like Adrian Peterson. It was Bill Belichick taking the wind instead of the ball in overtime.

And the game came down to a blown punt reception involving, of all people, Wes Welker.

Welker never called off Tony Carter, a formerly anonymous special team player, as he prepared to catch a Ryan Allen punt at the ten-yard line with just over two minutes left in overtime. The Allen punt took one bounce in front of Welker and struck Carter on the right hand. The ball then became live, and Nate Ebner pounced on the ball at the Denver 14. Two kneel downs and a two-minute warning later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 31-yard field goal to give the Patriots a wild but classic 34-31 overtime win at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night over the Denver Broncos.

The Patriots at one point trailed 24-0, but scored four straight touchdowns in the second half to forge ahead 28-24. The Patriots coughed up three fumbles in the first quarter, which turned into 17 Bronco points. But Denver turned the ball over in the second half three times, and the Patriots were able to capitalize and rally to eventually win.

The game was played under significant weather conditions. The temperature was in the teens all game long with wind chill factors in single digits. The wind was blowing strongly from the left end zone to the right end zone. These conditions prevented the shootout between the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks that everyone was looking for, but the teams still managed to put on a good show in a year where the NFL has been hurting for compelling games. This was arguably the best NFL game of the year to this point.

Overtime began ominously for the Patriots. The Broncos lost the coin flip, but Rob Ninkovich looked to the sideline as if to say “What do we do?” What transpired almost looked like a repeat of Abner Haynes’ famous “We’ll kick to the clock” mis-call in the 1962 AFL title game. Haynes’ gaffe in the end did not hurt the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs), and the captains did indeed heed Belichick’s wishes. Belichick elected to take the wind and defend the left end zone, giving Manning the ball first in OT.

This seems like very risky strategy on the surface. Belichick takes the wind only because it was that much of a significant factor, and the still-new rule that allows an overtime game to continue if the team that possesses the ball first kicks a field goal. The Patriots could survive a Matt Prater field goal on that first possession, but the Broncos would need to drive deep into Patriot territory to kick a field goal into the stiff wind. It was a gamble, but a sound gamble.

In the end, Denver possessed the ball twice in overtime. Denver began its first drive at the 20, and two Moreno runs got them to the 46. But a pass interference call on Eric Decker on a pick play pushed the Broncos back to their 42, and on third down and 14 Manning tried to hit Demaryius Thomas on a deep left sideline route, but Aqib Talib stayed with him and knocked the ball away. The second drive began at the Denver 13. A Moreno 18-yard run and a slant pass to former Colt chum Jacob Tamme put Manning at the Patriot 39. On third down and 8, Welker ran a crossing pattern to the left, Manning hit him in stride, and Welker simply dropped the ball. After a delay of game penalty, the Broncos punted again.

The Patriots also had two possessions in overtime, and did far less with their offense. A 12-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski was sandwiched between two short Brandon Bolden runs. Then Brady tried to hit Kenbrell Thompkins on a slant pattern, but was held by Quentin Jammer as he made his in-cut. It was obvious interference, but no flag was thrown. Brady screamed at the officials, but on third down and four, Brady tried to lob a long pass to Julian Edelman but overthrew him and the Patriots had to punt. It was a curious call on third and four.

The second drive began with a nice slant pass to Edelman for 17 yards, but Brady misfired on the next two passes and hit Thompkins for only six yards. That’s only 36 total yards for the two drives, whereas the Broncos moved the ball 82 gross yards on their two drives.

But Allen’s second punt resulted in the play of the evening. Welker was positioned at the Denver ten-yard-line. Allen punted right towards Welker, but Welker needed to come in to make the catch. Welker never called off Carter, coming in from Welker’s right side. The ball bounced and struck Carter, and Ebner fell on the ball.

The folks who hadn’t given up on the team down 24-0 went into instant hysteria. Brady took the first snap and fell down in the middle of the field. Denver spent one of its two timeouts, then the Patriots brought out Gostkowski on second down. Then Brady came back out and ran a keeper up the middle, and the crowd got to see a rare overtime two-minute warning (there was a tie earlier in the day between Minnesota and Green Bay). After the warning, Gostkowski came on to kick the field goal. Denver called its last timeout to ice Gostkowski, but Gostkowski is no Billy Cundiff. Gostkowski put his foot in the ball as if he was sitting on the sofa taking a nap. Ball game.

The Patriots dug themselves a deep hole in the first half. The first three drives ended in lost fumbles. Stevan Ridley returned to Belichick’s doghouse by coughing up the ball on the eighth play of the game and Miller returned the fumble 60 yards for a touchdown. Two plays into the next drive, Miller beat Nate Solder badly and strip sacked Brady. Terrence Knighton recovered the fumble, and two plays later Moreno blasted in from the one. Then three plays into the next drive, LeGarrette Blount was clobbered by Duke Ihenacho and Danny Trevathan recovered, which led to a Prater field goal. Tamme would catch a 10-yard scoring pass from Manning in the second quarter to make it 24-0 Broncos.

A weird chain of events swung the game towards the Patriots near the end of the first half. With 15 seconds left, Trindan Holliday muffed an Allen punt and Marquice Cole recovered at the Denver 42. Brady threw a Hail Mary into the end zone which resulted in Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie getting injured and not returning.

That proved critical as the Patriots came out firing in the third quarter. Edelman caught a five-yard scoring toss from Brady, then a Montee Ball fumble soon after led to a one-yard run by Bolden to make it 24-14. A sack of Manning gave the ball back to the Patriots, and Brady hit Gronkowski from six yards out to make it 24-21. Into the fourth quarter, Logan Ryan jumped a Decker route in the left flat for an interception, and soon after the Patriots had their first lead of the night when Brady hit Edelman for a 14-yard touchdown catch.

Manning relied more on Moreno than himself to win the game, and it may have cost him in the end. Moreno rushed for 224 yards on 37 catches and a 6.1 average. Manning passed for only 150 yards and had a 70.4 passer rating. Brady was 34 of 50 for 344 yards and three touchdowns, and a passer rating of 107.4.

With Indianapolis losing to Arizona, the Patriots are now the second seed in the AFC. If they win out, they will do no worse than a first round bye. If Denver should lose one more game along the way, the Patriots would get the one seed based on their win against Denver. The win was huge for the Patriots, a stout effort given the fact that they were losing 24-0 at one time.

It was wonderful vindication for the Patriots. Brady beat Manning again, and the key play was a mistake by Welker. With Thanksgiving on Thursday, the Patriots have a lot to be thankful for.

Grogan's Grade: Week 11 - Patriots at Carolina

R.R. Marshall: Steve the Patriots came up short on Monday night in Carolina, falling to the up and coming Panthers 24-20 in a game that went down to the final play. Where do you stand on the now the now infamous picked up flag controversy?

Steve Grogan:
I stand right in the middle I think. It was an interesting call, non-call. I think if that was a wide receiver out in the field during the game, it would have been pass interference because he couldn't get back the ball. You see it all the time. But there is a little bit of question about whether Rob Gronkowski was too deep in the endzone to get back and make a play on the ball. I think if that play happens in Foxboro, they probably get the call. But you don't get that kind of call on the road and unfortunately it could have cost them the game.

RRM: Just to expand on your point, I heard somebody else say the same thing. If you look at some of these controversial last calls on Monday night, it does seem to go in favor of the home team. Why do you have that in your opinion?

The home team always kind of gets the benefit of the doubt, I believe, because of the crowd. The officials are trying to do a good job and not to be biased, but when you're in a stadium with 60-70 thousand people that are rooting for their home team, you have a tendency to kind of lean toward the home team and I think that probably had something to do with it.

RRM: Did you see the final shot of Tom Brady walking off the field with the officials?

I did. Everybody was upset because there was no explanation really. It was just the flag was picked up, the referee said the game's over, and there was no real explanation. I think Brady was not only venting on the referee as he left the field, but he was trying to get an explanation and, of course, wasn't getting one.

RRM: But you know all the anti-Brady people are going see it and say, "There goes Brady, he gets the benefit of these calls and now he's trying to get another one?"

I think anybody would have done that. There's detractors for Tom Brady out there that are going to say that. But I think any quarterback in that situation would probably be chasing the official down and trying to get an explanation. I thought Brady handled it really well in the press conference after the fact. But you're emotional, you've got a chance to come back in the last minute and win a game, and then to have something like that happen, you're just looking for an explanation and he wasn't getting one.

RRM: In retrospect, did you feel that the game really seemed to shift momentum on the third-and-one play on the Patriots' second to last drive where they were running the ball so well and Brady goes with the play-action pass and the best thing that they can do is throw the ball away with no outlet receiver available and they ended up settling for the field goal?

Yes, that was a tough one. I know what they were thinking, that Carolina was expecting run and they thought they could sneak somebody out there and get the ball in the endzone. But when you're running it well like that, I think in my opinion, you want to show them that you're as physical or more physical than they are and you try and run it right at them and get the first down. They gambled and it didn't pay off.

RRM: Given the fact that the Patriots had two weeks to prepare for this game and had a full compliment of offensive weapons for the first time this season, doesn't this loss have to be considered perhaps the major disappointment of the season so far?

I don't think so. Honestly, I don't think most of us up here in this part of the world have seen that much of Carolina. I was really impressed with how they played, especially defensively. They've got a really good defensive football team and they played better than I expected them to. They've got some great young players on that defense and they showed it Monday night. They weren't intimidated by the Patriots, they came right at them and they made plays when they needed to. I just thought both teams played a really good football game and unfortunately the Patriots just ran out of time.

RRM: Once again the Patriots lost a close game to a more physical NFC opponent. Are we at that point now where it's going to be surprising to see them actually pull off a victory against a team of that type?

That's a tough question. People are talking about whether the Patriots can win a physical football game, I think they can. What we saw Sunday night on defense, with as many guys that were banged up, it's hurting them defensively a little bit. But I think they could play with anybody.

RRM: Aqib Talib and Steve Smith continued their on-field rivalry throughout the football game, but I thought Talib took it a bit too far to the detriment of his team. Did you feel the same way?

They had quite a battle. I thought Talib let it get a little out of control early in the game but they're both competitors. They've both been talked about coming into the game, what they were going to do. And when you get two competitors in close quarters like that, sometimes tempers flare.

RRM: This team has now lost three of their road games this year. Does this reflect the kind of lack of mental toughness on their part, or is it just the injuries proving to be too much for them to overcome?

"if you can beat the Broncos at home on the big stage again on Sunday Night Football, then I think you're right there in the conversation about who's the better team in the AFC. If you lose, you've got an uphill battle the rest of the way." - Steve Grogan on the task facing Bill Belichick and the Patriots this weekend.

I think a lot of it's got to do with the injuries and who they've had on the field. Early in the year some offensive guys were missing, now they've got defensive guys missing. They had the bye week to get healthy and they got Shane Vereen back, which was good. They've got to get healthy, stay healthy, and try not to make any mistakes. I thought the fumble by Stevan Ridley, as good as he's been playing and doing so much for the offense running the football, to put the ball on the ground in the red zone like he did early in the game Monday night, I thought that was a tough play.

RRM: You mention that he was taken out of the game for a stretch, but he did end up coming back and actually scoring the touchdown that put the Patriots ahead for the only time in the game. So apparently Bill Belichick is going to stick with him?

It looks like he is. He's got to get focused on covering that ball up, especially down when they get in the red zone. You can't make mistakes like that against a good football team and expect to not have it come back and bite you, and that's what it did Monday night.

RRM: Well, this loss makes Sunday's game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos even more important for the Patriots. A victory elevates them to the level of a Super Bowl contender, and a loss translates to the feeling that the Patriots can't be considered among the NFL's elite. Fair or unfair?

I think that would be a fair comment. Denver, I think, is unquestionably the best team in the AFC right now. You're playing them on your home field which should give you somewhat of an advantage, maybe you'll get the calls like Carolina got Sunday night. But if you can beat the Broncos at home on the big stage again on Sunday Night Football, then I think you're right there in the conversation about who's the better team in the AFC. If you lose, you've got an uphill battle the rest of the way.

RRM: This is certain to be a different type of a football game than the one we saw on Monday night, with both teams likely to put up a lot of points and yardage. Is that what you're anticipating as well?

Every time you see two teams like this come together and play and you expect a lot of points in the game, it always seems to turn out that neither one of them score that many times. So I think this is going to be a real battle. It could be 45-40, or it could be 17-14. It's one of those games where you just don't know what to expect. With the weapons Manning has, more than likely he'll put up some points and hopefully Brady and his guys can do the same thing.

RRM: After watching Peyton pick apart the AFC's best defense in the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, you can't feel all that great about the Patriots now suddenly exposed secondary trying to contend against them this week?

No, they've got their work cut out for them. Hopefully Steve Gregory will be back and Aqib Talib's not too banged up with that hip that kept him out of the game late last Sunday night. But Manning's got weapons and he's really comfortable in that offense out there. He's going to more than likely put up a number of points and it's going to be one of those challenges. This defense can bend a little bit but don't break, and they can kick field goals if they have to. But the offense is going to have to respond in the same mode if Manning does start racking up the points early in that first half.

RRM: We've all heard the same, "It's Bill and Brady vs Manning" but of course they don't actually play against each other. But after Brady came off his nice five days away at the beach with Gisele and the kids, you know after this loss he has to look at this match-up with Peyton as almost a personal challenge. Is that the feeling you get?

I would say that's a fair statement. I think he really, really wants to play well in this game because of the fact everyone's talking about Manning and what he's doing out there. He's got Welker playing for him now, Welker's a question mark with the concussion, but I think that Brady will take this definitely as a personal challenge and really be as focused as we've probably seen him all year.

RRM: I only do this a few times per season, but I'm going to put you on the spot and ask you to offer us your official prediction for the Brady/Manning showdown on Sunday night football?

I think it's going to be a tie game [Laughs].

RRM: Even with the NFL's new overtime rules? [Laughs].

No [Laughs], I'm just kidding. I think is going to be one that is won in the last minute of the game again, very similar to last week's game. I would like to think the Patriots are going to win it 33-30. But Sunday night's game was a well played game, a fun game to watch, and I think you're going to see the same thing this week.

RRM: I can't let you go without backtracking a week since we were off for the bye week and ask you about this whole Richie Incognito affair with the Dolphins. Have you ever seen anything quite like this before?

No, I haven't. Guys rib each other in the locker room all the time and say things that you wouldn't say in a normal workplace, but this looks to be a little bit overboard. Although it sounds like both guys were saying things to each other that most normal people wouldn't say. There are a lot of things that go on in the locker room that seem strange to the outside world, and you would have thought that this would have affected the Dolphins and how they played this last weekend, but they went out and won the football game. So hopefully this will get settled and put behind everybody and the NFL can move on.

RRM: This thing probably would have died by now if not for the fact that the investigation lead to involvement by the coaching staff and I think that's when it took on a whole new life of its own.

Right. You've got accusations that the coaching staff asked him to do that to toughen the kid up. The general manager made some's just gone crazy. It's been talked about as bullying, I don't see it as bullying as much as it is just two friends that are getting on each other that let things get a little bit out of control.

RRM: It's funny, but I couldn't help but harken back to the days of the Patriots where it just seemed to be one thing after the other with the players involved with DUI's, harassment of the press...

It reminds me more of my last year, 1990, with the Lisa Olsen thing when they had lawyers coming in and taking depositions and people were accusing certain guys of doing certain things, and it was just very disruptive. Like I said, I thought this would be very disruptive to the Miami Dolphins. It wasn't last week, it may become that in the future. But that 1990 season was a long one for us. We only won one game and a lot it had to do with the fact that we were preoccupied with things that had happened in the locker room off the field and it was hard to overcome.

RRM: The reference I was making was the fact that it just seems to me like with poorly organizations, things like this, if it's not this it's something else that happens and it just reflects that something is not being run right down there?

To a point that's true. I mean, everything you hear about Joe Philbin, the head coach, he's a great guy, everybody respects him. He paid his dues, finally got to be a head coach, but apparently he wasn't on top of things and that doesn't bode well for anybody down there in that organization.

RRM: And my point being, you just don't see things like that happening with Belichick run teams.

No, good teams don't let that kind of stuff go on.

RRM: What are Grogan's Grades for the 24-20 loss to the Panthers on Monday night?

Well, this may surprise some people but I thought, as I said before, it was a great game by two very good football teams. I thought both of them played extremely well, the Patriots just ran out time and as Vince Lombardi used to say, "They didn't get beat, the clock ran out." I'm going to give everybody a B+ across the board for their effort Sunday night.

RRM: I guess you could call that a lenient grade for a loss...

Like I said, I knew you and everybody else would probably wonder about that grade, but I just think the Patriots played a good football game, the Carolina Panthers played one play better.



Patriots Fail To Close Out Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The real death knell for the Patriots was not a flag picked up on the final play of the game.

Right now, you’re incensed that the game ended the way it did. Tom Brady leads the Patriots on an 80-yard drive with 59 seconds left and all three timeouts. Brady gets them to the Carolina Panthers 18-yard line with three seconds left. Brady tries to hit Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. Robert Lester makes a game-ending interception. Penalty marker thrown. Luke Kuechly mugs Gronkowski in the end zone. Interference on Carolina. Patriots’ ball at the one, and an untimed down as a half cannot end on a defensive foul.

Except the flag was picked up. Game over. Carolina hangs on for a 24-20 Monday night win at Bank of America Stadium.

The play that did the Patriots in happened a while back. The teams traded touchdowns in the second half, but on their first offensive possession of the fourth quarter, the Panthers were finally held to a three-and-out. The Patriots got the ball at the Carolina 39, with the score tied at 17. They rode the broad shoulders of LeGarrette Blount with some power runs and were perched at the 8-yard line, third down and one. Blount had five carries for 14 yards on the drive, but was finding tough yards against a stout Panther defense.

But on third down and one, Josh McDaniels called for a pass play off a play fake. Nobody on the Carolina defense bit on the fake, and Brady had to throw the ball away. The Patriots settled for a 26-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski (which was almost botched by holder Ryan Allen) and the Patriots had their only lead of the night at 20-17. The Patriots had to get a touchdown here, and why Blount’s number wasn’t called again was a mistake which cost the Patriots the game in the end.

The Patriots couldn’t get another stop. Cam Newton led the Panthers on an 83-yard drive, culminating with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn on a quick screen where Kyle Arrington badly whiffed on a tackle. Newton helped his own cause with a 15-yard scramble on third down and six from the Panther 21, and also found tight end Greg Olsen for 14 yards to set up Ginn’s score.

All game long, the Patriots were fighting battles with both Newton and themselves. Newton is finally realizing his vast potential after being a Heisman Trophy winning first draft pick a few years back, and he killed the Patriots with both his arm and his running. Newton led the Panthers in rushing with 62 yards on seven carries and a nearly nine yards per carry average. Newton’s passing numbers were 19 of 28 for 209 yards, three touchdowns and a 125.4 passer rating. When the Patriots failed to get a touchdown on the aforementioned drive, you just knew Newton would find a way to win the game.

The Patriots hurt themselves with two sacks of Brady, key penalties, and a costly lost fumble by Stevan Ridley. The Patriots were held to only three points in the first half, but that was more about the lost fumble, a personal foul on Logan Mankins and a missed block by Nate Solder which produced a Greg Hardy sack which prevented more points by the Patriots. Bad tackling also hurt the Patriots; a 14-yard scramble by Newton in the third quarter with the Panthers on their own 37 facing third down and seven was a killer.

Another subplot which the Patriots lost big time was the matchup between Steve Smith and Aqib Talib, the latter just coming back from an injury. Smith, the one Carolina holdover from Super Bowl XXXVIII, badgered and taunted Talib all game long, and goaded him into a personal foul penalty which extended a Panther touchdown drive in the first quarter. Talib made some plays on Smith in the fourth quarter, but overall Smith killed Talib and made him lose his composure.

Brady finished with 29 of 40 passing for 296 yards and one touchdown and a passer rating of 91.2. Blount led the Patriots in rushing with 49 yards and a 4.9 yards per carry average. Shane Vereen, who like Talib was coming off an injury, led the Patriot receivers with eight catches for 65 yards. Kenbrell Thompkins had the nicest catch of the evening, a 37-yard third quarter grab which set up a Ridley one-yard touchdown run.

If the Patriots do play the Panthers again in the Bill Belichick Era, the venerable coach will perhaps design a better game plan to either stop or contain Newton. Newton was never presented with anything that befuddled him, and his long scramble runs turned out to be lethal to the Patriots. Granted, the Patriots are decimated on defense without Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, but outside players like Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones should be responsible for outside containment and at times seemed to either forget to contain or did contain but whiffed on tackles.

On the game’s final play, it was clear that Kuechly held Gronkowski in the end zone. What is debatable is whether or not Gronkowski could actually have caught that ball if Lester hadn’t picked off the ball in front of him. If nothing else, if Gronkowski could not have made the catch, then Kuechly should have been flagged for defensive holding and the Patriots get an untimed down at the 13 rather than the one. Brady and Ryan Mallett screamed at referee Clete Blakeman as he left the field, but Blakeman basically ignored him. It was a frustrating end for the Patriots, but the picked up flag did not lose the game for the Patriots.

The Patriots now have a short week to get ready for another titanic battle with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who just handed Kansas City its first loss and took over the lead in the AFC West. The Patriots have to pick up their guts, stuff them back inside their shirt and get ready for another prime time national telecast.

But the Patriots, according to Brady, “let one get away”. The Patriots may be looking at still another first round playoff bye disappear in two weeks in November.

Patriots 2013 Opponents, Five First Impressions of the Carolina Panthers

The New England Patriots travel to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football. The game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.

The Patriots (7-2) are coming off of a bye week but ended their first half on a good note by scoring an NFL season high 55 points in dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Panthers (6-3) beat the San Francisco 49ers in Frisco on Sunday 10-9. The Panthers were able to shut down the Niners in the second half and come away with a huge win on the road that thrust them into the thick of the playoff picture.

We'll post a detailed breakdown of the matchups later this week, but here are five first impressions of the Carolina Panthers:

Matchup Much Tougher Than Anticipated Earlier This Summer: When this game was initially shown on the Patriots 2013 schedule, many would have pointed at it as a check mark in the win column....not so fast.

Carolina, after a slow start has won 5 in a row and now is the thick of the NFC playoff race. Head Coach Ron Rivera has his players believing in his team and after a very impressive win this weekend in San Francisco, has many NFL pundits doing the same.

The Niners entered Sunday on their own five game winning streak and were seen as just hitting their stride and were playing at home. With the win, the Panthers won't be the underdogs against the Patriots on Monday night, they will be favored.

Panthers Defense Now One of the Best: Carolina has transformed their defense from one of the worst just a few seasons ago to now one of the best in the NFL. They've allowed 115 points on the season, and only the Kansas City Chiefs have allowed less.

During their current five game winning streak, they are averaging giving up only 11.4 points per game and haven't allowed more than 15 points in any of them. Currently they are the #2 defense against the run, (82 yards per game) and the #4 defense against the pass, (201.3 yards per game).

Looking at the last five games:

Panthers Defensive Stats Opponent                                                                       Opp. Score     W/L    Rush Yds    Pass Yds ______________________________________________________________________
Minnesota Vikings 10 W 75 215
St. Louis Rams 15 W 63 254
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13 W 48 249
Atlanta Falcons 10 W 78 211
San Francisco 49ers 9 W 105 46

It starts upfront with one of the best front sevens in the league. The Panthers used their first two picks in the 2013 draft on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. And they keep it simple, there isn't a lot of trickery, exotic formations and blitz packages. They stick to their base defense and make you beat them.

Looking at the numbers from the Niners game, they sacked QB Colin Kaepernick six times and had seven more hurries in just 28 passes attempted. Four of the sacks came when rushing four or fewer defenders. The 49ers were just 2-for-13 on third down.

The linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have been the big playmakers for the defense with Kuechly being one of if not the best coverage linebacker in the league.

Running Game Keeps The Offense Balanced: The Panthers have a very good running game and have been bolstered by the return of Jonathan Stewart to go along with the dangerous DeAngelo Williams who is on pace for a 1000 yard season, fullback Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton who can be a big factor rushing from the QB position.

With the Patriots struggles in stopping the run in the last few games, the Panthers will want to take advantage of that and open up play action, something they've been successful on during their current winning streak.

Each of the different runners brings something different to the table and the Panthers will be looking to pound the ball and control the clock. The Panthers average 4.0 yards per carry and 128 yards per game on the ground.

Cam Newton And Shula, A Good Match: New Carolina Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula has gotten some very good play out of QB Cam Newton this season and all signs are pointing to them getting even more out of the young signal caller as the season moves down the stretch.

Shula has tried to improve Newton's play this season by getting him to make quicker decisions, read the defenses faster and get the football out of his hand faster. And he has, as well as having Newton buying into his system as the Panthers have rolled off five wins in a row.

Shula has him making better decisions which places a lot of stress on the defense, particularly in the pass-rush while the coverage units on the backend have their own issues because there's that time clock ticking in a lot of people's heads and Newton can extend plays if need be and by scrambling can make plays with his feet or by throwing on the run.

For the season, Newton has completed 62.7 percent of his passes, 170 of 271 for 1970 yards 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.

Mentally Tough Team, Taking It One Game At A Time: It has been awhile, since the Panthers have been relevant in the league....about 5 years but their new found success is not getting to the player's heads and coach Ron Rivera has kept the focus on the most important game of the year...the next one.

"If you're winning, you're more relevant and people pay more attention to you – and deservedly so," Rivera said. "We've got good players that deserve some recognition. They've worked hard at it."

But the big focus isn't getting lost as he added, "That's great. I hope they enjoy it, but once they come in Wednesday, the focus is now on New England."

Mike Mitchell summed it up best on Sunday after the win against the 49ers saying, "We're relevant. We're here. And we've got the biggest game Monday night. It's the biggest game because it's the next game. We look forward to preparing to try to win it."

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Five Keys For Post-Bye Patriots

Seven wins at the bye. Bill Belichick will take it.

All things considered, the Patriots should be tickled pink that they are 7-2, given all they have had to go through over the summer and going into the fall. Players leaving, players with legal issues, players getting injured, yet here are the Patriots at the bye week in first place at 7-2. Tom Brady looked at times like he was going to completely lose it, yet here he is as always, right at the forefront of the AFC with only a handful of teams he should truly worry about.

The Patriots have evolved slowly into what they are now. They are not the offensive juggernaut of 2007, though Sunday's game against Pittsburgh looked a lot like it. They are not the defensive stalwarts they were during the three Super Bowl title seasons, with lockdown corners and perfect players. They are simply something else, and exactly what that something else is will be revealed more and more as the season grinds on into November and December.

The timeworn dogma of Bill Parcells says that "you are what your record says you are". The Patriots, in actuality, could very well be 9-0 if not for a lousy effort against a beatable team and an untimely application of some exotic new penalty. But the Patriots are 7-2, with only Denver and Kansas City as serious conference co-contenders. Given how Brady has had to adapt despite the losses of Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez, and all the injuries the defense has had to deal with, the fact that the Patriots are 7-2 is perhaps the biggest positive of the 2013 season thus far.

The Patriots don't just plan on winning the division. Players, management and fans expect at least a conference title run every year. If they are to continue their yearly playoff run in January, here are five keys to bringing that about.

Don't worry about how you get the message, just get the message

Brady took some heat from some sectors of the media for his candor earlier in the season when he was unable to get on the same page as his rookie receivers. He was seen on the sideline throwing some very noticeable and demonstrative conniption fits. And these were real whoppers. At times Brady looked like he was going to break a blood vessel in his head.

The prevailing sentiment was something like "he should be nicer to these rookies so that they don't lose their confidence". Brady should be more measured in his criticism of his young receivers. It looks so much better from a leadership standpoint if Brady could just walk up to the player, pat him on the back and say something like "It's okay, we'll get 'em next time!"

You know what? This is the NFL.

If Brady chews you out, you should do one of two things. Listen to what he says and get better. Or leave and try and hook on with another team.

Brady has earned the right to act and react any way he wants. Brady will be a first ballot Hall of Famer someday. He has three Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVPs. He knows how to win, and he knows how to win in the clutch.

You the rookie receiver need to grow up, take what he gives you, and continue to improve. If he yells at you, take it for what it's worth and get back to work. Shut up until you've earned the right to speak up. Until then, never mind if he yells at you. Suck it up and do what he tells you.

Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will be very good receivers someday. And if they have any good sense and good personal character, they will thank Brady someday for chewing them out when they clearly deserved it.

When Vereen comes back, take the pressure off Brady

Of the many injuries the Patriots have sustained, one of the most overlooked is the loss of Shane Vereen. The Patriots are deep at running back with Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. But none of them has the skill set that Vereen has, especially at catching the football.

If Vereen can stay healthy, he gives the Patriots a weapon they used to have in Kevin Faulk and Woodhead. If Brady can use Vereen in screen packages, it can open up lots of nice things over the middle if the defense has to respect the outside. And Vereen can run the ball also, which will take a lot of pressure off Ridley.

Blount and Bolden are basically luxury items. They are nice to have for power yardage, and now and then they can break off long runs. Ridley is your workhorse if he can get rid of his fumble yips (Faulk used to have them also). But Vereen can make a difference, especially against tough December and January defenses.

Resist the temptation to overwork Gronkowski

He's back. You just want to throw to him about 15-20 times a game. It's an addiction.

But Rob Gronkowski cannot be the focal point of the offense. Brady has, or will soon have, more weapons at his disposal than he had earlier on in the season. He has options.

And he has his binky tight end back.

Gronkowski has shown that he is not indestructible. It took forever to get him back on the field. It looked like there was a huge polarization developing on the Patriots with Gronkowski, a chasm between the team and Gronkowski's family and confidantes. The family may have been the sage ones here. Don't put him back on the field until he is ready to go beyond a shadow of a doubt.

It would be wonderful if Gronkowski were not put in a position for people to speculate on his health or overusage. Use Gronk, yes. But temper that usage. And for goodness sakes, don't transfer that overusage to Danny Amendola. Spread the ball around, and get back to the days when seven or eight different receivers caught at least one pass.

Then, when that one tough January catch has to be made, Gronk will be there to make it.

Sopoaga has to make believe he is Wilfork

No problem. If Brady goes down, just tell Ryan Mallett he has to make believe he is Brady. That's how it works, right?

Isaac Sopoaga was picked up last week from the Eagles as a run stopping nose tackle. In his first game as a Patriot, the Steelers had 108 yards rushing as a team, and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. That sort of thing works great if your offense scores 55 points. But on average nights, those numbers need to go down. Like under four yards per carry, and ideally, under three.

The loss of Vince Wilfork has exposed the Patriots as a poor run stopping defense. They were 31st in the league against the run going into Sunday's game against Pittsburgh. Sopoaga needs to step up and plug up the middle, if not at Wilfork's level, at least to the point where teams cannot easily run between the tackles and chew up yardage and clock. Keep in mind also that Jerod Mayo is also missing from this defense, which is magnifying the work of Donte Hightower.

Pay attention to the opponent's yards per carry average. Under four? Good. Under three? January great.

Here's to the health of Aqib Talib

Talib is a funny guy. To listen to him talk, he sounds like Boomhauer from the TV cartoon King of the Hill.

But there is nothing funny about how Talib plays cornerback. And as demonstrated in last year's AFC Championship Game, there is also nothing funny about when he is not in there.

Much was made about Talib being an anti-boy scout when he arrived at Foxborough last year. Now, he's more like the Amendola of the defense rather than being the next Pacman Jones. Talib has been either extremely good or extremely hurt during his Patriot tenure.

Talib is not a lockdown cornerback in the mold of Ty Law, but he is very close. He is perhaps the key to the Patriots making it to the Super Bowl. Along the way to the Big Show, some quarterback will expose Kyle Arrington (who plays when Talib is hurt), and it will likely be the difference in the game. That's pretty much how Baltimore beat the Patriots back in January. Talib could cover Anquan Boldin, but Arrington could not.


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