NFL Preview - New England (7-2) at Carolina (6-3)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - What's better than putting together a signature win?
How about back-to-back signature wins?
The up-and-coming Carolina Panthers have a chance to do exactly that in front of a national television audience when they host Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football."
The Patriots, who had a bye in Week 10, will look to continue the offensive success they had a week earlier when New England scored 55 points and racked up 610 yards of total offense in a 55-31 drubbing of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Brady threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns without an interception in that one, his 15th game with at least four touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Pats -- not surprisingly -- are a perfect 15-0 in those contests.
Three New England receivers eclipsed the 100-yard mark to help the Patriots (7-2) move to 5-0 at home this season. Rob Gronkowski garnered a career-high nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown, Aaron Dobson had two scores on a five-catch, 130-yard effort and Danny Amendola totaled 122 yards and a touchdown on four grabs.
"It felt great out there," Gronkowski said. "It was important for us to play this way. Until now, we hadn't been clicking for all four quarters."
Stevan Ridley added a pair of rushing touchdowns while compiling 115 yards on 26 carries.
"There's a lot of football left to be played," said New England head coach Bill Belichick. "We just need to focus on what we're doing and who we're playing and try to go out there and play better than we've played, try to improve and try to win. We're not looking at anybody but Carolina right now."
The Panthers will be aiming for their sixth consecutive win behind a defense which has been one of the NFL's best, allowing 115 points, the second-fewest in the league coming into Week 11 behind only Kansas City (111).
Carolina is the only team in the NFL to rank in the top five in total defense (second), rushing yards allowed (second) and passing yards allowed (tied for fourth).
In their last encounter, the Panthers held San Francisco to nine points and 151 total net yards in a 10-9 victory. Entering that contest, the 49ers had averaged 34.8 points and 357.6 total net yards per game over their previous five contests.
"Everybody's on the same page," said Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who ranks second in the NFC with 8 1/2 sacks. "When everybody is on the same page, buying into the scheme, you're going to end up being successful. It's all about being a team and playing as one."
The Carolina defense held the 49ers to a paltry 2-for-13 conversion rate on third down and recorded six sacks.
DeAngelo Williams' touchdown run late in the first half was the only time either team found the end zone, and it helped the Panthers stay within a game of New Orleans in the NFC South race.
"There were a lot of good things that went on in this game today," said Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. "The defense did step up and play really well and I thought some of the things we did offensively, especially when we had good field position, were really good."
The Patriots have won three of their five all-time meetings with Carolina, including a thrilling 32-29 win in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brady really hadn't been himself this season until exploding against the Steelers, thanks in large part to the uncertainty at the skill positions. The fact that Gronkowski and Amendola are now healthy and Dobson seems to getting it has to be a scary thought for most opposing defenses.
"They have a one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game, a great coach, and now they are getting some players back. It is a tremendous challenge for our football team," Rivera said.
"Tom Brady is a very cerebral guy, he's been around a while, he knows where he's going with the ball, he's smart, he understands defenses," linebacker Luke Kuechly added. "So we've just got to do a good job of playing our job, doing our responsibilities and make sure we're in the right spot."
The Panthers, of course, aren't most defenses. Since taking over the middle linebacker position in Week 5 of the 2012 season, Kuechly, who earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort against San Francisco, has spearheaded an amazingly consistent group.
The imposing front seven is allowing a measly 82.0 yards per game on the ground.
"They're one of the best defenses in the league," Brady said. "We have to play really well. I think our execution has to be at its best."
The Carolina offense isn't nearly as formidable save for dynamic quarterback Cam Newton, who has thrown 13 touchdowns and rushed for four more so far this season. Veteran receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen have been Newton's favorite targets but neither will pop the top off a defense at this stage.
Newton, though, seems to have realized that he can live to play another down so to speak and punting the football isn't the worst thing in the world with his defense. Taking care of the football is paramount and Newton has done so in recent weeks.
"He's playing very efficiently. He does a good job," Belichick said when asked about Newton. "He's obviously a threat with the ball in his hands to run. He can make all the throws.:
The Pats' defense has been hampered by injuries, especially up the middle where defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, along with linebacker Jerod Mayo have been lost to season-ending injuries.
That said Belichick believes his team is ready for Newton because they have already faced a few other mobile QBs like Buffalo's EJ Manuel and the Jets' Geno Smith.
"I think that a lot of the plays that Carolina runs we've seen from Buffalo and the Jets," Belichick said. "The fact that we have seen some of those plays, we've worked on the basic blocking schemes and how to fit on them, where everybody needs to be."
Brady has a 13-4 career record on Monday nights and still enjoys the extra attention the stand-alone showcase provides.
"Monday Night Football is always pretty cool, especially when you play a really good team on Monday Night Football," the three-time Super Bowl champ said. "It's a fun night."
It won't be as much fun against this Carolina defense, however. Kuechly and Co. will do enough to slow down the Pats on the big stage to give the Panthers their sixth straight win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 20, Patriots 16
11/18 09:06:00 ET