New England Patriots (7-2) at Carolina Panthers (6-3)
Monday, 8:40 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. - TV: ESPN
*TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
*Keys to the game: A primary focus for the Patriots during their bye week was to address pass protection issues after QB Tom Brady was sacked at least three times in each of the past five games. The Panthers rotate in four strong defensive tackles who plug up the middle and free DEs Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson to crash the edges. The Patriots' passing game has shown signs of being more consistent even amidst the consistent heat. Brady can rely on quick drops and getting rid of the ball on underneath routes to keep the chains moving with New England likely to struggle to move the ball on the ground against Carolina's front seven. Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has found a good rhythm in his play-calling and will use his trio of running backs to steadily pound away at the soft, injury-plagued interior of the Patriots' defensive line. Carolina won't kill you with big plays, but the Panthers do average more than seven more minutes of possession than their opponents and sport a plus-eight turnover margin with QB Cam Newton avoiding mistakes while focusing on the intermediate passing game.
*Matchup to watch - Patriots C Ryan Wendell vs. Patriots DT Star Lotulelei: Key rookie starters go to battle, with Wendell at a significant strength disadvantage despite being 6-2, 300 pounds. Lotulelei also has surprising quickness for a 6-2, 315-pounder.
*Player spotlight - Patriots RB Shane Vereen: The third-down back is expected to be activated after being sidelined since the opener with a wrist injury. His receiving skills out of the backfield could provide an immediate boost to counter Carolina's aggressive front seven.
*Fast facts: The Patriots have allowed 26 sacks, one fewer than all of last season. Brady is on pace to be sacked 46 times - five more than any other season of his career. He has only been sacked more than 30 times once in the past nine seasons. ... The Panthers seek an NFL-high sixth consecutive victory.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Panthers proved they can travel cross-country and win smashmouth football in San Francisco last week, opening a lot of eyes in the process. They can potentially explode New England's offensive line, but QB Tom Brady's group of weapons is getting healthier, he's gaining confidence in the youngsters and the underneath passing game fuels a big road win.
*Our pick: Patriots 23-20