NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT
For the second straight week, the suddenly popular Carolina Panthers are involved in one of the most eagerly anticipated games on the NFL schedule.
After beating up the defending NFC champion 49ers in San Francisco, Carolina hosts the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football in Week 11, the first Monday night game in Charlotte since their last winning season in 2008.
"For the past couple of years, we know it. The Carolina Panthers haven't been the hot topic, or the hot thing in the league," quarterback Cam Newton said Wednesday.
"It's an extremely big opportunity. Out of respect of trying to tone it down as much as possible, but for us we need this more than anything. The Carolinas need this more than anything."
From 2009-12 were some lean times in the Carolinas. The Panthers went 23-41 those four seasons and the start of 2013 didn't offer much hope.
But after losing three of their first four, the Panthers have won five straight to set up a monster match-up with the 7-2 Patriots.
"It's been a long road," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It was two tough years before we got here and it's been two tough years while we're here. To be in the situation we are in, to do the things we need to do, and do them the right way, that's big.
"The excitement is great. I talked to the players about focusing on what it's really about, and that is the game. The excitement should be great for our fans and great for the city more so than anything else. We are in the spotlight and we are relevant."
Considering their recent struggles, and the fact that they play in one of the smallest markets in the league, the Panthers don't have much experience being relevant. They've played in just 10 Monday night games, the second fewest in the NFL behind the Texans.
While most teams get thrust into the spotlight by an exciting offense, Carolina's defense is the reason many have started to take notice. That unit is ranked in the top five of most defensive categories including total yards allowed (second), points against (second), rushing yards allowed (second), passing yards allowed (fourth) and interceptions (tied for first).
The defense has thrown down two of the top three stingiest performances of the entire NFL season allowing the Giants to gain just 150 yards in Week 3 and the 49ers to muster 151 yards in Week 10. Only St. Louis, which held Seattle to 135 yards in Week 8, has had a better single-game showing this year.
Carolina has been especially good in the second half, giving up only 24 points combined in the second halves of the last five games.
But the Panthers haven't played a quarterback like Tom Brady yet. While much will be made of a Brady versus Newton matchup, Brady against the Carolina defense should determine who actually wins the game.
If that happens to be the Panthers, the national spotlight could go from bright to glaring, despite the claims of some that they don't need outside accolades.
"We know what we've got in this group. We don't need a bandwagon," defensive end Charles Johnson said.
But for a franchise like Carolina, whose bandwagon is rarely close to full, a good result Monday night could catapult them from sudden NFC contenders to NFC favorites.
SERIES HISTORY: 5th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 2-2. The Patriots won a fifth meeting when the teams played in Super Bowl XXXVIII. New England also won the last meeting between the two teams, a 20-10 decision in 2009.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES
--For the first time in franchise history, the Panthers have had three players named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. LB Luke Kuechly was given the award Wednesday after collecting 11 tackles, two for a loss, and a sack against the 49ers.
DE Greg Hardy earned the award after dominating the Giants in Week 3 and LB Thomas Davis won it after his performance against the Vikings in Week 6.
It's the second time Keuchly's been named player of the week in his 25-game career.
"You work hard during the week, and when it pays off, it's cool," last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year said. "Our D-line played great. When they play as well as they do, it makes our job a lot easier."
--As the Panthers continue to put up numbers not seen around Charlotte since 2008, they continue to bring back guys that played on the squad that was the last Carolina team to make the postseason.
They re-signed former offensive linemen Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner earlier this year, and Wednesday they reunited with Dan Connor.
The linebacker, who started 19 games for the Panthers from 2008-11, signed with the Giants in March after playing with the Cowboys in 2012. He began this season as the Giants' starting middle linebacker, but he was placed on injured reserve after he suffered a neck injury in Week 1.
Connor's signing may mean the Panthers are more concerned about linebacker Chase Blackburn than they are letting on. Blackburn is dealing with a foot injury and rookie A.J. Klein replaced him in the starting lineup Sunday in San Francisco.
"I was shocked at the phone call but so excited to get an opportunity to come back here," Connor said. "The defense looks unbelievable. It's about as good as I've ever seen it. It's exciting to be around."
Connor said he expects to provide linebacking depth for the Panthers second-ranked defense, and he should also see some snaps on special teams.
--The Panthers' 10-9 win Sunday was their first victory in a game decided by three or fewer points since Week 7 of 2010. Carolina was previously 0-5 in games decided by a field goal or less in the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era.
BY THE NUMBERS: 57 - Points allowed by the Panthers during their five-game win streak. The Patriots scored 55 points in Week 9 against the Steelers.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "In the locker room after that game, you would've thought doggone Jesus came back. Honestly. It was that type of feeling. It was a great feeling and we want to continue having that type feeling." -- QB Cam Newton, on the Panthers' reaction after beating the defending NFC champion 49ers.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--DT Sione Fua was released one week after the Panthers tried moving him to offensive guard. Fua was active against the 49ers but did not play. He was cut before the start of this season, but Carolina brought him back while DT Dwan Edwards nursed a sore hamstring.
--OG Travis Bond was signed from the Vikings' practice squad. He was a seventh-round pick in April's draft. Bond will help supply depth to an offensive line that has seen five members land on injured reserve.
--WR Steve Smith, who has 11,902 receiving yards in his career, needs three more yards to pass Hall of Fame WR Michael Irvin for 22nd on the NFL's all-time list. And with two more receptions, Smith will pass Hall of Fame TE Shannon Sharpe for 25th all time.
--DE Charles Johnson, who has 8.5 sacks through nine games, is a half-sack away from becoming the first player in Panthers history to record at least nine sacks in four straight seasons.
--K Graham Gano has made five field goals of 50 yards or more this season, breaking the Panthers' single-season record of four set by John Kasay in 1998 and 2006.
--CB James Dockery was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The third-year player appeared in five games making five tackles this season.
--LB Chase Blackburn is still struggling with a foot injury. If he doesn't get well by Monday night, rookie A.J. Klein will get his second straight start.
--RG Chris Scott is unlikely to return from a knee injury by Monday night, which would give converted DT Nate Chandler his second straight start.
GAME PLAN: The Panthers' defensive game plan of taking the run away and forcing the opposing quarterback to beat them has worked to perfection during their five-game winning streak, but they're not playing an ordinary quarterback this week. Tom Brady is the best they've faced this year, and despite his struggles with his inexperienced receivers, Brady showed he can still pick defenses apart during New England's 55-point outburst against Pittsburgh in Week 9. The Panthers' front seven can create havoc on pocket passers, and they'll have to be especially feisty against Brady, who, if given time, could exploit Carolina's beatable secondary.
The Panthers and Patriots are tied for eighth in the league with 29 sacks this season, and New England's really dialed up the pressure totaling 11 sacks in its last two games. Carolina QB Cam Newton struggled in the first half against the 49ers, but he made enough plays in the second half, and stayed away from making too many mistakes. The Panthers don't want to label Newton a game manager, but he may need to play that way again versus the Patriots. If Newton can avoid errors, and if the Panthers can establish a solid ground game and a balanced attack, they should be able to go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the NFL.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Panthers LT Jordan Gross, who is still going strong in his 11th season, vs. Patriots DE Chandler Jones, who leads all second-year DEs with 8.5 sacks. Gross will have his hands full against Jones, who has picked up two sacks in three games this season, and who already has 50 tackles after finishing with 45 as a rookie.
--Panthers LB Luke Kuechly, the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week in Week 10, vs. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, who is averaging 6.3 receptions and 94.7 yards per game this season -- Kuechly continues to prove himself as one of the best linebackers in the NFL, but he will face a big challenge in Gronkowski. After missing the first six games of the season, Gronkowski has totaled 19 receptions and 284 yards in three games. He has only one touchdown, but his next score will make the fourth-year player the fastest tight end to record 40 touchdown catches.