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What To Watch For: Patriots-Panthers

By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
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New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) –  The Carolina Panthers head into their Monday Night Football showdown with the New England Patriots as one of the hottest teams in the NFL.

They’ve won five straight and are fresh off a dominating defensive showing  in which they held the San Francisco 49ers to just 151 yards and nine measly points off the foot of Phil Dawson. The Carolina defense has allowed just 57 points in last five games, and packs a mean punch when getting to the quarterback.

But when you take a step back and look at those 57 points they’ve allowed, holding the Vikings, Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons to a combined 47 points is nothing special. (Allowing just nine points to the 49ers remains impressive.) Three of those four teams are on at least their second quarterback of the season, and the Falcons are just plain abysmal.

Now in comes Tom Brady and a Patriots offense that is pretty much back to the well-oiled machine everyone is used to seeing. Rob Gronkowski is once again a superhuman tight end, Danny Amendola is making key catches, and with Shane Vereen likely returning, the running game will have another elusive body coming out of the backfield.

TALE OF THE TAPE: Patriots vs. Panthers

Not to mention, the Patriots are coming off their bye week and are ready to start the most important part of the season. No one prepares a team for the final eight weeks of a season like Bill Belichick, and the Patriots’ 23-1 record in the second half of the season over the last three years proves it.

Special teams captain Matthew Slater said “a lot of times it’s not who you play but when you play them” on Gresh & Zolak earlier this week when talking about the Panthers. The same can be said for the Patriots, and the second half of the regular season is not the time opposing teams want to take the field against them.

But, they play all these games for a reason. Here is what to watch for on Monday night:

Patriots Spread It Out
With Shane Vereen likely back, Tom Brady will finally have his full arsenal of weapons on the field. Because of this, expect the Patriots to spread it out against a very good Carolina defense (they’re second in the league against the run).

We could write out all the things they’ll try and do, but Michael Felger broke it all down earlier this week. So we’ll let Felger do the heavy lifting on this one:

Carolina’s Two-Heading Rush Attack Is Back
Cam Newton gets all the headlines in Charlotte, and rightfully so. He’s a dynamic quarterback that is pretty good throwing the football, but even better when he takes off on the ground.

But Carolina also has a pretty decent running back tandem in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, which is back at full strength with Stewart’s return from a right ankle injury. Add in the goal-line presence of Mike Tolbert, a human bowling ball, and the diminished Patriots defensive line will have a busy evening on Monday.

READ: Patriots-Panthers Preview

On their own, Williams, Stewart and Tolbert are not that feared. But as a group, they can accumulate some big yards in a hurry.

The Patriots have struggled to stop the run since losing both Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo on the defensive side, giving up 156 rush yards to the Dolphins in Week 11, and 108 yards to a Steelers team that ranks 27th in the league in rushing yards. This week will give them another challenge, especially with a trio like Williams, Stewart and Tolbert, and the running prowess of Newton.

Brady On His Back
Tom Brady is going to get hit on Monday night. It’s going to happen, as it has at an alarming rate throughout this season.

It’s up to the offensive line to make sure it doesn’t happen too often, and Brady gets up each time afterwards.

The Panthers have 19 sacks on the season coming from 13 different players. Leading the way are defensive ends Charles Johnson (8.5 sacks) and Greg Hardy (5 sacks), who could have a field day with a struggling Patriots offensive line.

Brady has hit the ground 19 times over the last five games, three times in each of the last two contests. Carolina’s defense is much better than that of the Steelers or Dolphins, so chances are Brady will once again have limited time to get the football out of his hand, and will be taking a seat a few times on in Charlotte.

Talib vs. Smith
Talib is anxious to get back on the field and in the face of the opposition’s best receiver after missing the last three games with a hip injury. This week, he’ll draw Steve Smith, who does just as much talking on the field as Talib.

Those exchanges alone will be worth watching, though we likely won’t get to hear what is being said. But it’s more fun when you can fill in the blanks on your own.

As for the football, Talib may be a bit rusty after sitting for more than a month but he should be able to handle Smith the same way he took care of Julio Jones and A.J. Green. The 34-year-old Smith is still a threat, but not nearly as dangerous as he was just a few years ago. He’s averaging just 49.4 receiving yards over the last five games, and hasn’t found the end zone in the last three weeks.

With Talib on him on Monday night, that trend will likely continue. And with the trash talk along the way, it will make for a very entertaining matchup in prime time.

MORE PATRIOTS COVERAGE FROM CBS BOSTON

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