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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.

5. It now appears that defensive lineman Armond Armstead and wide receiver Mark Harrison won’t be in the Patriots’ plans for 2013. The two opened the year on the reserve/non-football illness list, and players on reserve/NFI (as well as the physically unable to perform list) had until Week 11 (this week) to start practicing. Belichick noted earlier this week that when it came to Armstead, “we’€™re running out of time,” and added that when it comes to the possibility of him contributing, it “looks less likely now with each day that goes by.” (If a player on NFI or PUP doesn’€™t start practicing by Week 11, their seasons are over. Once a player on either list starts practicing, a team has three weeks to activate them to the 53-man roster.) If it is indeed the end of the season for those two, it marks a disappointing finish to a year that began promisingly, particularly in the case of the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Armstead. A former CFL star who was acquired this offseason by the Patriots, it was thought the USC product could help provide an interior pass rush after posting six sacks last season with Toronto. But he underwent surgery for an infection prior to the start of training camp, and was placed on the reserve/NFI list shortly after that. As for Harrison, the wide receiver out of Rutgers was never healthy since he was signed in the spring, but the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder is certainly an intriguing prospect. A three-year starter at Rutgers, he finished his college career with 107 receptions for 1,769 yards and 18 touchdowns.

6. While watching from a distance, seeing the drama play out around Peyton Manning and his injury situation is fascinating. The Broncos quarterback, who re-aggravated a right ankle injury last week in a win over the Chargers, didn’t practice this week — that’s big news because, at least historically, he’s almost never missed practice. He originally suffered the injury in an Oct. 13 win over Jacksonville, and ever since that hit, he’s fallen way off his record pace. Five of his six interceptions on the year have come since that injury, and, as the Denver Post has noted, his completion percentage has dropped from 74 percent to 65 percent in that same span. It’s worth speculating that if Denver wasn’t facing the Chiefs for a share of the division lead, Manning might sit. But Manning and the Broncos are going right into the teeth of their schedule: the have the 9-0 Chiefs on Sunday night, a date with the Patriots in Foxboro next Sunday, and a trip to Kansas City the following week. We should know a lot more about the mental toughness of the Broncos, as well as the fitness of Manning’s ankle, after these three games.

7. If you’re a Patriots fan who is looking for what to watch on Sunday, the Chiefs-Broncos battle will undoubtedly capture much of your attention. The Patriots currently sit in the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff picture with a 7-2 mark (trailing only the 9-0 Chiefs). Other games that could be viewed through a New England prism include the Browns-Bengals, Ravens-Bears, Jets-Bills and Chargers-Dolphins. If you’re a Patriots fan, and as it relates to potential playoff seeding, you want to root for the Browns (even though Cleveland isn’t technically out of it, the Bengals likely pose a bigger threat for that No. 2 seed), Bears (the Ravens have had some slippage lately, but based on their late-season run last year, can never be counted out), Bills (while the Jets have a tenuous hold on the No. 6 playoff spot, a loss to Buffalo would hurt a team looking to develop some consistency for a stretch drive) and a tossup. (If you had to choose one, probably the Chargers, as it’s in New England’s best interest to keep the Dolphins circling the drain so that the December game in Miami means as little as possible.) For more on the playoff picture as it develops, this is a terrific page worth bookmarking.

8. Just because, here are a few statistical comparisons between the 2012 team through nine games and the 2013 team in the same span:

Total offense (league rank)
2012: 430.3 yards per game (1st)
2013: 361.1 yards per game (12th)

Rush offense
2012: 146.0 (5th)
2013: 129.1 (8th)

Pass offense
2012: 284.3 (7th)
2013: 232.0 (18th)

Offensive points per game
2012: 33.2 (1st)
2013: 26.0 (8th)

Total defense
2012: 382.1 (25th)
2013: 361.0 (21st)

Rush defense
2012: 96.8 (9th)
2013: 128.2 (30th)

Pass defense
2012: 285.3 (29th)
2013: 238.8 (12th)

Points allowed per game
2012: 22.3 (15th)
2013: 19.4 (7th)

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