Patriots-Panthers Preview

The Associated Press

The last time Tom Brady and the New England Patriots took the field, they put up the highest point total in the NFL this year.

It's highly unlikely they will come close to duplicating that effort Monday night.

The Patriots will go on the road to face a Carolina Panthers team that has won five straight and flexed its defensive muscles by allowing the NFC's fewest points.

It hasn't been an easy season for Brady, who owns the lowest passer rating of his career at 82.7 and has been frustrated often by an inexperienced group of targets that has dropped 12.2 percent of catchable balls for the league's worst mark.

New England (7-2) put aside those problems for a 55-31 rout of Pittsburgh on Nov. 3 as Brady enjoyed season highs of 432 yards passing and four touchdowns.

Now the AFC East leaders come out of their bye to face the Panthers, who are yielding 12.8 points per game and held defending NFC champion San Francisco without a touchdown in last Sunday's 10-9 road victory.

"They're one of the best defenses in the league," Brady said. "We have to play really well. I think our execution has to be at its best."

Carolina (6-3) has outscored foes 140-57 during its longest win streak since a six-game run Oct. 3-Nov. 13, 2005. Linebacker Luke Kuechly earned conference defensive player of the week honors for an 11-tackle performance as part of a defense that sacked Colin Kaepernick six times.

The second-year player out of Boston College now gets his first chance to face Brady.

"Tom Brady is a very cerebral guy, he's been around a while, he knows where he's going with the ball, he's smart, he understands defenses," Kuechly said. "So we've just got to do a good job of playing our job, doing our responsibilities and make sure we're in the right spot."

Kuechly and unheralded safety Mike Mitchell each have three of the Panthers' 13 interceptions that tie the club for the league's most.

The Patriots have also been boosted by Stevan Ridley's six rushing touchdowns over his last four games. He will face a Carolina front that allows an average of 82.0 yards on the ground for the NFL's second-lowest mark.

Just getting Brady enough snaps could be a challenge since Cam Newton has guided an offense that leads the NFL in time of possession at 33:48 per game heading into his first matchup with the Patriots.

''He's playing very efficiently. He does a good job,'' said Patriots coach Bill Belichick about Newton. ''He's obviously a threat with the ball in his hands to run. He can make all the throws. He can put the ball on the sideline."

Carolina has rushed for an average of 120.4 yards during its win streak while the Patriots allow 128.2 yards per game on the ground for the league's third-worst mark.

Belichick believes his team will be prepared for Newton having already faced Buffalo's EJ Manuel and the Jets' Geno Smith.

''I think that a lot of the plays that Carolina runs we've seen from Buffalo and the Jets,'' Belichick said. ''The fact that we have seen some of those plays, we've worked on the basic blocking schemes and how to fit on them, where everybody needs to be."

Newton owns a 67.4 completion percentage over the last five games. He has helped the Panthers convert a league-high 36.4 percent of third downs of at least 10 yards, and they are third on all third downs at 46.2 percent.

He'll try to avoid a New England pass rush that has produced 29 sacks to match Carolina and is led by Chandler Jones' 8 1/2.

Jones is tied for seventh in the league in sacks with the Panthers' Charles Johnson, who forms an impressive pass rushing duo with fellow defensive end Greg Hardy (six sacks).

''That's our style of defense,'' Hardy said. ''We dominate. We take what we want. We do what we want.''

Those pass rushers have clearly been helped by the additions of rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.

''We're playing young guys who have learned very quickly,'' coach Ron Rivera said. ''These guys know what we want them to do.''

Both teams have been very disciplined with New England committing 41 accepted penalties and Carolina 44 to rank in the NFL's top six.

Brady is 13-4 on Monday nights, an event the veteran still enjoys.

"Monday Night Football is always pretty cool, especially when you play a really good team on Monday Night Football," he said. "It's a fun night."

The Patriots have won three of five all-time meetings, including 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

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