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10 things you have to know about Patriots-Panthers

11.18.13 at 1:09 am ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Monday’€™s Patriots-Panthers game.

Our three favorite matchups on the evening:

1. Cornerback Aqib Talib vs. wide receiver Steve Smith

The 34-year-old Smith is not the receiver he used to be (he’s still got 42 catches for 450 yards), but the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder is still feisty enough — and talkative enough — to find his true counterpoint in Talib, a corner who is known to do some woofing between the lines. Talib will be coming off three straight weeks on the shelf because of a hip injury he suffered in the Week 6 win over New Orleans, so there’€™s bound to be a little rust. While Smith isn’€™t the sort of elite receiver Talib has gone against over the first month-plus of the season, when they do go head to head on Monday, there should be some fireworks.

2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski vs. linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis

This is not to suggest the Panthers will be using one of them in single coverage on Gronkowski, but on paper, this looks to be one of the only linebacker combos that have the speed and strength to hang with the big fella. Kuechly is aggressive enough in coverage to be dangerous (he leads Carolina with three picks on the season) and is a high-end playmaker who will likely be asked to slow down the New England tight end, while Davis (a converted college safety) is also considered one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. Carolina has done well over the first half of the season when it comes to facing some of the best tight ends in the league — over the last two weeks, San Francisco’€™s Vernon Davis and Atlanta’€™s Tony Gonzalez have combined for seven catches and 83 yards against the Carolina defense. With Gronkowski getting back to something approximating 100 percent, it will be interesting to see how this matchup goes down.

3. Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones vs. quarterback Cam Newton

As was the case when the Patriots faced some of the other mobile quarterbacks earlier in the season — Josh Freeman, Geno Smith, EJ Manuel and Ryan Tannehill included — when it came to the front seven, the priority wasn’€™t so much on sacking the quarterback but keeping him contained in the pocket and making sure that things don’€™t break down. Gap discipline and maintaining the edge will be absolutely paramount when it comes to slowing down Newton, a practitioner of the read option who has shown a real ability to tuck the ball away and take off on his own. It’€™s up to Ninkovich and Jones to make sure that he isn’€™t able to bounce it outside — instead, you want to force him to the inside where linebackers like Brandon Spikes and Dont’€™a Hightower will be waiting to try and slow him down. Ninkovich said this week they can take a lot from their experiences with read-option quarterbacks like Michael Vick (who they faced in the joint practices in the summer) and Colin Kaepernick last year.

4. Under-the-radar opponent Patriots fans need to know

The Carolina secondary doesn’€™t get near the same amount of respect that the front seven garners, but it has quietly emerged as an important piece of Carolina’€™s scheme over the first nine games. The Panthers rank fourth in the league against the pass and have only allowed seven touchdown passes this season, and 5-foot-8, 186-pounder Captain Munnerlyn is a big reason why. The South Carolina product has 26 tackles, leads the team with seven passes defensed and had a pick thrown in for good measure. (One other note — he has four pick-sixes in his five-year career.) As a team, the Panthers have 13 interceptions on the season.

5. By the numbers

The Patriots have won their last five appearances on Monday Night Football by an average score of 40-12.

6. Quote of note

‘€œThe hard thing about this team, watching this team, is that there are a lot of guys that have been hurt or are coming back from being hurt. So, it’€™s hard to really get a good gauge as to who they are or what they are going to be as we get ready for this football game.’€ — Panthers coach Ron Rivera on preparing to face the Patriots, who are expected Monday for the first time all season — in the 10th game of the year — to have Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Aaron Dobson all available for the same game

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Reports: Wes Welker suffers concussion, status for Patriots game in doubt

11.18.13 at 1:03 am ET
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Wes Welker reportedly sustained a concussion in Sunday’s Broncos game. The former Patriots receiver, in his first season with Denver, took a serious hit going over the middle on a fourth-quarter pass play against the Chiefs, and left the game later in the second half as the team announced he was being evaluated for a concussion.

However, reports surfaced after the game that he did indeed suffer from a concussion, which would certainly throw his availability for next Sunday’s Patriots-Broncos game in Foxboro in doubt — going forward, Welker won’€™t be able to practice or play without separate clearances from an independent neurologist.

In his first season with the Broncos after six seasons with New England, Welker has 61 catches for 648 yards and nine touchdowns.

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Breaking down Sunday’s action from Patriots perspective

11.18.13 at 12:21 am ET
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Taking a look at the Sunday action through a Patriots prism:

Bills 37, Jets 14: A Saturday night trip to Dave & Busters did no good when it came to building consistency for the Jets, as Buffalo was able to rise up at home and knock off New York. The Jets have now alternated wins and losses over the first 10 games of the season on the way to a 5-5 mark, and while they still sit in that No. 6 playoff spot, New York needs to start displaying some consistency down the stretch if it wants to be taken seriously as a playoff contender.

Bears 23, Ravens 20: More good news for New England, as the fact that Baltimore slips even further behind in the playoff chase means it is a step closer to elimination from the postseason picture. Considering the fortitude the Ravens showed down the stretch last season in fighting their way through December and into the playoffs, they should never be discounted. At the same time, they’re now one of six teams in the AFC sitting at 4-6, a game behind the Jets for that No. 6 playoff spot.

Bengals 41, Browns 20: Cincy moved to 7-4 and took another step toward the AFC North crown with a relatively win over its interstate rivals. The Bengals, who snapped a two-game losing skid that saw them drop back-to-back overtime decisions, currently sit at No. 4 in the playoff picture, and are just a game behind New England in a suddenly close race. (Indy, which beat the Titans on Thursday, sit a half-game behind the Patriots.) The Browns are part of the morass at 4-6.

Dolphins 20, Chargers 16: The embattled Dolphins (we should think about collectively replace “Miami” with “embattled” going forward, considering that’s how everyone identifies them these days) posted an impressive win after a relatively miserable week, hanging on to beat the Chargers. Their win combined with the Jets loss to the Bills, has both teams sitting at 5-5, 2 1/2 games in back of the Patriots heading into Monday night’s action. Meanwhile, the Chargers join the whole host of AFC teams at 4-6, sitting just outside the current playoff picture.

Broncos 27, Chiefs 17: Denver dealt Kansas City its first loss of the season Sunday night in Colorado, leaving both teams theoretically tied for the top spot in the AFC playoff race with identical 9-1 records. The Broncos will take the No. 1 seed because of their Sunday night win over the Chiefs, which means the Chiefs (because they’re in the same division as the Broncos) are bumped all the way down the list to No. 5, and a wild card spot.

For the complete AFC playoff picture, this is an excellent page worth bookmarking.

Leon Washington downgraded to out for Monday night

11.17.13 at 8:09 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Sunday night that Leon Washington has been downgraded to out for Monday’s game against the Panthers.

The veteran running back/kick returner has been dogged by injuries for the better part of the 2013 season, and showed up on the injury report with an ankle issue that had him limited over the course of the week. The 31-year-old has played in two games this season, and has one rush for one yard on the year.

Washington joins cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Steve Gregory as out for Monday’s game.

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Report: Aqib Talib makes trip to Carolina, is expected to play against Panthers

11.17.13 at 6:23 pm ET
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Cornerback Aqib Talib has made the trip to Carolina and is expected to play Monday night against the Panthers, according to the Boston Herald.

Talib, who has been on the shelf three straight weeks because of a hip injury he suffered in a Week 6 win over the Saints, is New England’s top corner, having picked off four passes to this point in the season while matching up against some of the best pass catchers in the league.

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Fantasy Football Live Chat, 11 a.m.: Getting you ready for Week 11

11.17.13 at 10:05 am ET
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Join and fantasy football expert Pete Davidson in a live chat, starting at 11 Sunday morning. Let Davidson help you set your fantasy football lineup as crunch-time approaches. Join the fun now …


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Sunday Thoughts on Patriots, Panthers and AFC playoff picture

11.17.13 at 6:15 am ET
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1. Against the backdrop of this week’s matchup, it’s worth mentioning that the Patriots and Panthers once shared a healthy rivalry. It never reached the status of Patriots-Colts or Patriots-Jets, but each team had a genuine distaste for the other for almost two years. Much of it grew out of the events in Super Bowl XXXVIII. It started in pregame warmups in that title game in Houston, when Ted Washington and some other New England defensive linemen started woofing with Panthers. It continued throughout the game — one of the most physical Super Bowls of recent memory. Carolina receiver Steve Smith tells the story of being popped in the mouth by former Patriots defensive back Tyrone Poole. Rodney Harrison and Jake Delhomme kept up a running back-and-forth throughout much of the night. And if you rewatch the NFL Films presentation of the contest, there’s plenty of trash-talking going on involving the Carolina receivers. That bad blood was palpable when the two teams met in the preseason the following year — one Carolina-area department store sold t-shirts advertising “The Rematch” between the two conference champs. And in 2005, the Panthers got a small measure of revenge with a 27-17 win in Carolina in the second game of the season. There’s no such bad blood this time around, but it should still be a fun matchup nonetheless.

2. Last week, we detailed the Patriots’ record out of the bye under Bill Belichick. It’s an impressive 10-3 mark — for more on that rundown, check out our story here. But how has the rest of the team — namely, quarterback Tom Brady — done after a week on the shelf? He’s 9-3 (he was sidelined for the 2008 win over the Niners). At least statistically, his best performance came in 2007 against the Bills. In that Nov. 18 matchup in Buffalo, Brady ended up going 33-for-41 for 383 yards and five touchdowns in a 56-10 romp. That game was arguably the peak of the 2007 season — New England went to 10-0 with the win, and, at least in terms of point differential, it was their most dominant win of the season. (Following the post-bye week win over the Bills, the Patriots barely pulled out a pair of victories, beating the Eagles and Ravens by three points each in dramatic fashion.)

3. When it comes to Monday night, Brady has  traditionally been at his best. He owns a 13-4 mark when playing on Monday, including 10 wins in his last 11 games. (As a team, the Patriots have been really good in the Monday spotlight — they’ve won five in a row by an average score of 40-12.) As for Brady, he’s averaged 22-for-35 for 277 yards with two touchdowns and less than one pick per game on Monday night. His best Monday night performance — and one of the best of his career — came in the season-opener against the Dolphins in 2011 when he went 32-for-48 for 517 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception.

4. As we said earlier in the season, it’s dangerous to read too much into the state of the New England locker room over the course of the week, but the mood and tone was remarkably similar to what was coming out of Gillette Stadium in the days leading up to their 55-31 win over the Steelers. Loose and light were the two watchwords. It’ll be interesting to see how things translate on Monday night. In that same vein, the fact that Aqib Talib spoke with reporters is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, because the always-quotable cornerback is never dull.  And second, if you’re a player who has been banged up and been unable to go in previous weeks, history tells us that if you talk to the media, you’re usually going to at least try to play. New England’s depth at corner took a hit on Saturday with the news that Alfonzo Dennard has been ruled out, and while the Panthers don’t necessarily have an elite-level pass catcher, the Patriots are going to need all the bodies they can get their hands on, as Carolina has four pass-catchers who have more than 380 yards receiving. Expect a lot of snaps for rapidly developing rookie corner Logan Ryan. In addition, look for another Rutgers product to see a sizable chunk of playing time, as Duron Harmon will be more involved this week with Steve Gregory on the shelf.
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