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Oh, how the mighty have fallen. For the first time in 50 games, the Patriots have lost back-to-back games. On top of that, they have dropped three of their last four and have jeopardized their playoff chances. Now they need to prove they can still win and take control of their own destiny. Their opponents this week are the Carolina Panthers. New England is 2-1 on the season against the NFC South and need to not let the cat out of the bag.
Carolina is a desperate team. They are 5-7 and need a win to keep up in the playoff race. The former savior of the franchise, Jake Delhomme, has been less then stellar and with a small finger injury the Panthers will turn to Matt Moore to handle the ball. Receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad have not been stellar with Delhomme, combining for only 1064 receiving yards. Instead, Carolina has relied on the running duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Both have the ability to be a number one back and both will see a lot of action Sunday.
This team was always a strong defensive team, but things have changed. They might rank fifth stopping the pass, but are at the bottom of the league when it comes to stopping the run. There was a lot of rumors surrounding Julius Peppers coming to New England during the off-season and the Pats probably wish he did. He has been the only pass rush for Carolina with 8.5 sacks on the season. Instead, Carolina protects the middle of the field, anchored by Jon Beason and his 102 tackles. Their secondary, featuring Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, and one of the best at stopping a team from any big plays.
So what type of Tom Brady should we be expecting? The easiest answer: an angry one. All week there has been talk of the Patriots losing their touch and falling from elite status. At last check they are still currently playoff bound and Tom Brady has thrown for 3,638 yards, good for second best in the league. He might have had two off weeks, but it shouldn’t be a cause for panic. If there is anyone that can right the ship and make sure the Patriots are playing come late January, it’s No. 12.
New England will most likely not be able to completely stop the running game, so the plan should be to neutralize it. Gary Guyton and Jerod Mayo will need to perform huge. The guys at the line will try to overpower Carolina’s offensive line, but there will be holes. The linebacker corp will need to plug those holes and make sure Williams and Stewart aren’t making their way towards open field, or else New England will be doing a lot of chasing. Oh, and if you just try to let Williams and Stewart do their thing and make the quarterback lose the game, think again. When Tampa Bay tried that they gave up a combined 162 yards and three touchdowns. Control the run, control the game.
Still, Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad are not the same duo New England saw in Super Bowl XXXVIII. This season, they have had one 100 yard receiving game between them. It might have been Jake Delhomme’s 18 interceptions that have hurt them, but both Smith and Muhammad have had issues in hauling in receptions. Neither has more then eight receptions in a game this season, so only needing to stop them a few times will make it easier on the secondary. Unless the Panthers let Matt Moore completely loose, the secondary will just need to stop big plays, which is easier said then done.
However, it’s not the only way. Carolina is horrendous at stopping the run. Laurence Maroney has been dwindling since his 123 yards against Tennessee and with his lack of production he is losing carries. Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris have been getting more and more carries and should Fred Taylor return, Maroney might become an afterthought. Still, a balanced running game is what it will take to beat Carolina and maybe spreading the ball between backs will create more opportunities for New England to move the ball and control the clock.
Some television analyst have wondered if players are finally challenging Belichick’s ability to reach players. With that, Bill needs to prove that this is still his house. By benching Thomas he will send a message that no one goes against his saying. However, he should do the opposite in my opinion. By leaving Thomas of the field and not calling plays that hurt the reputation of the defense, questionable calls going for fourth down, he will say he trust his players and respects their opinions. It’s obvious whatever the Patriots have done in the past four weeks hasn’t been working, so a change in attitude, especially from Belichick, can be a needed change.
Carolina will do whatever it takes to win. Should they lose, they will be pratically eliminated from the playoffs. Still, a desperate team in more likely to make costly errors. The Patriots need to capitalize on those mistakes and offer a balanced offensive attack. More importantly, the defense needs to be in control and not scrambling to make plays. That has cost them in the past. A win will keep New England’s playoff dream alive and they should get it.
New England 24 – Carolina 13.
Tags: Adalius Thomas, Bill Belichick, DeAngelo Williams, Fred Taylor, Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo, Jonathan Stewart, Julius Peppers, Laurence Maroney, Matt Moore, Mushin Muhhamad, Randy Moss, Steve Smith, Tom Brady, Wes Welker