BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots gave their season a massive injection of zeal and momentum last weekend with a huge road win over the Los Angeles Chargers. A two-game win streak has the team back at .500 and in the mix for a playoff spot in the AFC.
But given that their margin of error is razor thin, the Patriots cannot really afford any hiccups the rest of the way. A third straight win this weekend will further improve their postseason odds, while a loss to the Panthers would put them further on the outside looking in at the AFC playoff picture.
Unfortunately, playing against the Panthers hasn't always been much fun for Bill Belichick's Patriots -- at least in the regular season. The Patriots are 2-4 all-time against the Panthers, and just 1-2 in Carolina under Belichick. Their last visit ended in controversy, when Clete Blakeman and his crew picked up a PI flag on the final play of the game, a 24-20 Panthers win. They didn't think Tom Brady's ball to a wrapped-up Rob Gronkowski was catchable, much to the chagrin of Brady. And Gronk. And all of New England.
Blakeman will be on the field again on Sunday, but the two teams are obviously massively different than New England's last visit to Carolina. Mac Jones is now under center for the Patriots, while it will either be Sam Darnold (fresh off a concussion) or P.J. Walker under center for the Panthers. Stephon Gilmore is also wearing a Carolina uniform for this one, giving it a real Bizzaro World vibe.
Both teams come into the game at 4-4, with the Panthers ending a four-game losing streak last weekend with a 19-13 win over the Falcons in Atlanta. After winning their first two home games of the season, the Panthers have dropped two straight at Bank of America Stadium.
It should make for a fascinating mid-season matchup this weekend, one that in the end could go down as a great big game of keep-away. Here's what we'll be watching for when the Patriots and the Panthers kick off Sunday afternoon.
The Patriots and Stephon Gilmore couldn't come to an agreement on a contract extension, so the team dumped him for nothing last month. Now, they'll have to see the 2019 DPOY on Sunday.
Gilmore made his Panthers debut last weekend and made an immediate impact, picking off a Matt Ryan pass late in Carolina's win over the Falcons. Think he's feeling a little extra motivation for this weekend's tilt?
"A lot extra," he said after Sunday's win.
Then he came out this week and said he didn't appreciate how the Patriots handled his quad injury. Gilmore is going to do everything he can to stick it to Belichick and the Patriots this weekend, as he looks to prove that he's still one of the best corners in the league.
He looked pretty good in his debut last weekend, spending a lot of time on rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. It'll be interesting to see whom he matches up with this weekend against his former team.
Tougher Day For Damien
After back-to-back games with 100 rushing yards, Damien Harris had to work for his 80 yards against the Chargers in Week 8. He averaged just 3.5 yards on his 23 carries, and the Patriots as a team averaged just 3.6 yards on their 39 attempts. It should have been a lot better against the worst rushing defense in the NFL.
And it will be a lot more difficult this weekend, with the Panthers touting a far superior run defense than the Chargers. Carolina ranks 13th in the league in allowing 106.8 rush yards per game. Opponents are picking up 4.4 yards per carry against them this year.
The run game is an integral part of the New England offense, and the Patriots are going to have to really work to establish a ground attack on Sunday.
And Mac Too
Mac Jones is probably in for a rougher day as well. He's been sacked just twice over the last two weeks, but the Panthers are pretty good at getting after quarterbacks.
The Panthers have 21 sacks on the season, tied for the fourth-most in the league. Linebacker Haason Reddick leads the way with 7.5 sacks, while defensive end Brian Burns has chipped in with 4.5. The New England offensive line is going to have its hands full on Sunday.
Jones saw a lot of pressure from the Chargers last weekend and turned in an extremely mixed performance. He eventually steadied the ship, but he was rattled for much of the first half and into the third quarter, sending passes well over his intended targets and occasionally at their feet. He's going to have to do a lot more quick thinking against the Panthers this weekend.
He'll do so against a pretty talented secondary that is playing well despite losing some big names. The Panthers are allowing just 189 passing yards per game, which ranks second in the NFL. Add in a highly motivated Gilmore, and Jones could be in for a rough afternoon in Charlotte.
Long Drives By Carolina
Part of New England's game plan against the Chargers last week was to play keep away with the L.A. offense. The Patriots won that battle, possessing the ball for over 35 minutes in Week 8.
Now they're going against a team that has done a great job keeping the ball away from the opposition. Carolina has won the time of possession battle in six of their eight games this season. They've run 546 plays from scrimmage, which is the third-most in the NFL so far behind only Kansas City and Tennessee. Their average TOP is 32:42, which is also third in the NFL, behind Cleveland and Tennessee.
The Panthers love to keep opposing defenses on the field. They've embarked on 19 drives of at least 10 plays this season, with 15 of them ending with points on the board. Seven of those drives have lasted seven minutes or longer. Last week against the Falcons, the Panthers went on drives of 15, 16 and 15 plays, eating nearly 24 minutes of game clock.
It will be extremely important for the New England offense to make the most out of every possession they get on Sunday. If the Panthers are able to operate the way they want, the Patriots offense may not get many chances with the ball.
Tune in to Sunday's Patriots-Panthers game on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Tune in Friday at 7pm for Patriots All Access, while Patriots GameDay kicks off Sunday's coverage at 11:30am. The Patriots-Panthers follows at 1pm, and after the game stick with WBZ for full reaction and analysis on Patriots Fifth Quarter!
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