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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

7. Patriots fans should be worried about …

The Panthers jumping to a quick lead, either in the first or third quarter. Carolina is at its best when it gets to a quick start early — the Panthers are 5-0 when they score first, and are very good at playing with a lead. (In fact, in the games when they’€™ve scored first, they’€™ve trailed for just 45:41 of total game action, all of which came last weekend against the Niners, their first comeback win of the season.) Coming into this week’€™s action, they’€™ve outscored their opponents 38-8 in the first quarter. That’€™s the stingiest first-quarter point total in the league from a defensive standpoint, and tied for the second-best first-quarter point differential in the NFL coming into the weekend. (Prior to Sunday’€™s action, only the Falcons and Raiders were better, at plus-31. The Niners were also at plus-30 in the first quarter prior to Sunday’€™s game.) Then, there are the third-quarter woes that have dogged New England over the course of the season — the Patriots have been outscored 58-29 in the third quarter this year, and their 29 points represents a low when compared to the other three quarters. (New England had just one game this season when it hit double digits in the third quarter — Oct. 27, when it scored 17 third-quarter points in a 27-17 win over Miami.) The Panthers have outscored their opponents 55-30 in the third quarter this season.

8. Panthers fans should be worried about …

Tom Brady submitting a typical Monday night performance. It’€™s admittedly a big-picture element to this contest, but Brady and the Patriots are very good on Monday night as of late. New England has won 10 of its last 11 Monday night games, with wins by an average margin of 40-12 the last five times Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden showed up. Brady owns a 13-4 mark when playing on Monday — 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.) It’€™s expected that Brady will have the full collection of his offensive options at his disposal for the first time all season, including Vereen. It will be interesting to see how he utilizes them.

9. One more thing

The Carolina defensive front shares a lot of similarities with the Jets and Bengals in that it’€™s a big, mean, fast, physical front seven that has an ability to get after the quarterback. These are personnel groupings that have traditionally given the New England offense some issues. On the surface, this seems to be the sort of team that the Patriots might be inclined to try and spread out — open in a five-wide set and try and make the Panthers defend a full compliment of offensive options like Gronkowski, Amendola, Vereen and Edelman at the same time. Try and get the ball out as fast as possible and try and avoid what has become one of the better young pass rushers in the league.

10. Prediction

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