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NFL Preview - Carolina (5-7) at New England (7-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A little over a month ago, the New England Patriots were 6-2, Tom Brady was healthy and the club appeared to be on its way to dominating the AFC East once again.
However, things change quickly in the NFL, and that is why the Patriots are facing what could be viewed as a must-win game this Sunday versus the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium.
After a 27-17 home victory over Miami back on November 8, New England held a two-game edge over the New York Jets in the division and was coming off a contest in which Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss reminded many how they dominated the league en route to a perfect regular season in 2007.
Fast forward to last weekend, when the Patriots suffered a 22-21 setback to those same Dolphins. New England's second straight loss and third in four games dropped them to 7-5 and has the club just a game up on both Miami and New York in the standings.
Brady came into the game battling an injured right finger and also took a hard hit during the game's opening drive while completing a 58-yard touchdown pass to Moss. Brady left the field following the score to get treatment for an arm injury, but did not miss an offensive play. However, he did throw two interceptions, including one with 35 seconds left in the game that came on New England's first drive after Miami kicker Dan Carpenter connected on the go- ahead 41-yard field goal a half-minute earlier.
The quarterback, whose wife, model Gisele Bundchen, gave birth to the couple's first child earlier this week, did not practice on Wednesday and was listed on the team's injury report with both a right arm and right finger injury.
Wide receiver Wes Welker ended up catching 10 of Brady's 19 completions for 167 yards, while Moss was held to just one catch after his score. Moss was also one of four New England players sent home early on Wednesday for being late to an 8 a.m. meeting on Wednesday. Also banished were linebackers Adalius Thomas, Gary Guyton and Derrick Burgess, though poor weather in the area may have played a factor in the incident.
After falling to 0-5 in true road games this year -- New England beat Tampa Bay in London earlier in the year -- the Patriots return home to Foxboro, where they are 17-2 in December since 2000.
New England will also battle Carolina for the second time since besting the club, 32-29, in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Brady threw for 354 yards and three touchdowns in that contest, which New England won thanks to Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal with four seconds left.
Panthers' quarterback Jake Delhomme countered Brady with 323 passing yards and three scoring throws of his own, but might not get to face the New England quarterback this Sunday.
Delhomme missed last weekend's 16-6 victory over Tampa Bay due to a broken right finger and did not practice on Wednesday. Instead, Matt Moore made his fourth career start and first since 2007 in the game, throwing for 161 yards with an interception.
With running back DeAngelo Williams out due to an ankle injury, Jonathan Stewart made his first career start for Carolina and totaled 120 yards rushing on 26 carries with a touchdown. Williams was able to practice in full in preparation for this contest.
Carolina's defense stood tall versus the Buccaneers, notching five interceptions -- including three in or around the end zone. Tampa Bay took eight of its drives inside the Panthers' 30-yard line, but notched just six points.
The win improved the Panthers to 5-7 on the season, which has them three games back of a Wild Card spot with just four games to play.
Carolina has a 2-1 edge in its all-time regular season series with New England, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 27-17 home victory during the 2005 campaign. The Panthers also secured a 20-17 overtime victory in their lone trip to New England in 1995, while the Pats' lone win in the regular season series was a 38-6 romp in Charlotte during the 2001 season.
The most notable between the franchises came in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, won by New England by a 32-29 count.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a career record of 2-1 in his career against the Panthers, including the Super Bowl win. Carolina's John Fox is 1-1 in his career against both Belichick and the Patriots, including the Super Bowl loss.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
No matter if Delhomme (2015 passing yards, 8 TD, 18 INT) or Moore is under center this weekend, the Panthers should rely on their third-ranked rushing attack with Williams likely to return to the lineup. Williams (1022 rushing yards, 7 TD) was the NFL's fourth-leading rusher prior to missing last week and has teamed with Stewart (664 rushing yards, 7 TD) to help Carolina average 151.9 yards per game on the ground. Of course, if the Panthers fall behind early that plan could go out the window, meaning wide receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad might have to step up. Smith (49 receptions, 4 TD) had three catches for 78 yards versus Tampa Bay last weekend and notched a 39-yard touchdown reception in the Super Bowl versus New England. Muhammad (38 receptions, 0 TD) ended with four catches for 43 yards versus the Bucs. Moore has yet to throw a touchdown pass in three games this year, and his next will be his first since tossing a pair versus Tampa Bay back on December 30, 2007. The quarterback was sacked once by the Bucs, and the Carolina line has allowed 26 sacks on the season. The Panthers rank 24th in the league with 17.9 points per game and 22nd with 321.0 total yards per game.
The Patriots' run defense will face a stiff task against Williams and Stewart, and comes into the game 15th in the NFL versus the run (107.9 yards per game). However, it yielded just 88 yards on the ground to the Dolphins, limiting running back Ricky Williams to 75 yards on 18 carries. However, New England's 13th-ranked pass defense was torched for 335 yards and two scores by Miami quarterback Chad Henne, who was sacked just once. Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather (58 tackles) forced the team's lone turnover with his career high- tying fourth interception of the season. Getting to the quarterback has not been New England's strength this year, as its 3-4 defense is tied for 28th with just 20 sacks. Linebacker Jerod Mayo (64 tackles, 1.5 sacks) led the team with 12 tackles last weekend, while corner Darius Butler (30 tackles, 2 INT) added eight. Cornerback Shawn Springs (27 tackles) has missed the last four weeks due to a knee injury and was inactive last Sunday despite practicing during the week. Outside linebackers Thomas (28 tackles, 3 sacks) and Pierre Woods (29 tackles) figure to have their hands full with Carolina's run attack this weekend.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Brady (3638 passing yards, 22 TD, 10 INT) threw for 352 yards versus the Dolphins and is currently second in the NFL in passing yards. He has won 19 straight home games as a starter, tossing 36 touchdown passes to nine interceptions in that span. While teams try to take away Moss (68 receptions, 9 TD) as the deep threat, Welker (95 receptions, 4 TD) has made six-plus catches in 10 straight games. He leads the NFL in receptions and is second with 1,053 receiving yards, behind only Moss' 1,058. Brady also has a third target in Sam Aiken (17 receptions, 2 TD), whose lone catch last weekend was an 81-yard touchdown. With all that big-play ability, it is no surprise that the Patriots rank fifth in points per game (27.3) and second in both total yards (414.6) and passing yards (301.6) per game. New England does rank 16th in rushing offense at 113.0 yards per game. Laurence Maroney (560 rushing yards, 8 TD) had 13 carries for 41 yards last weekend, while Sammy Morris added nine for 40 yards. Brady was not sacked at all versus the Dolphins and has been brought down just 15 times this year.
Brady will line up against a Carolina defense that was the epitome of "bend but don't break" unit last weekend. Linebacker Jon Beason (102 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) had two of the Panthers' five picks, a career high, while cornerback Chris Gamble (45 tackles, 3 INT) and safeties Charles Godfrey (25 tackles, 1 INT) and Chris Harris (47 tackles, 1 INT) all added a pick. Those backs have been key to the Panthers ranking sixth in the NFL versus the pass, allowing just 192.4 yards per game through the air, but that number figures to get tested this weekend against Brady as opposed to Tampa Bay rookie Josh Freeman. Still, New England could also look to take advantage of Carolina's 26th-ranked run defense, which is yielding 133.3 yards per game. Not helping matters for Carolina is that both defensive end Tyler Brayton (38 tackles, 4 sacks) and linebacker Na'il Diggs (26 tackles) suffered injuries versus the Bucs. Brayton sustained a concussion while Diggs has a rib injury, and both are considered questionable for Sunday. Cornerback Richard Marshall (63 tackles, 3 INT) had a club-high 10 tackles last week and defensive end Julius Peppers (35 tackles, 1 INT) added a sack, giving him 8 1/2 on the season. Defensive tackle Nick Hayden also finished with a sack.
With fantasy playoffs set to begin, Williams owners will be glad to see him back on the field this weekend. However, those who have just Stewart will be a little disappointed. Carolina will likely give both backs touches early, and owners just have to hope that the Panthers don't fall behind quickly. Moore or Delhomme aren't worth a look this weekend, but Smith remains Carolina's top target. Carolina's defense walked on the edge a week ago and isn't a good play in this one.
There is a bit of an injury concern to Brady, but as long as he plays he remains a must-start along with Moss and Welker. Aiken is a sleeper candidate in deep leagues due to his big-play ability and the fact he is the lost face in New England's pass-heavy attack. Maroney has been good at finding the end zone as of late and could do so again versus the Panthers' poor run defense. New England's defensive value goes up if Moore starts again.
The Patriots know what is at stake and don't figure to come out flat in this game. The team that has won five of the past six AFC East titles is in danger of falling in the standings, but gets a bit of a break with this matchup against the inconsistent Panthers. Carolina didn't impress last weekend against the inferior Buccaneers and faces a more experienced Patriots club that will zero in on the run while daring Moore (or Delhomme) to beat them. Expect the Pats to get refocused this weekend prior to next week's divisional showdown with the Bills.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 28, Panthers 13
12/10 18:12:09 ET