Week 10's game against the San Francisco 49ers was a lesson in measured excitement. There was a palpable air of anticipation, but lets be honest -- we all didn't buy in. Whether the Panthers were "real" weighed heavily into the game, and is a burden which has since been lifted. The team is confident, more importantly the fans are confident and we should see Bank of American Stadium rocking against the Patriots on Monday night.
Before the season I pegged Monday's game as a New England victory, and up until last week I still did. Carolina is talented, there is no doubting that -- but the Patriots are the best coached team the Panthers have faced, have the best quarterback and have the most weapons. That said, Sean McDermott's defense has proven to be better than ever expected, stopping every team they've faced so far (within reason).
New England is no longer the pass-first, no-run Patriots team of five years ago and this team is significantly weaker in the air than they have been in the past, but this is still a dangerous passing team. There's no doubt the organization made a huge error in letting Wes Welker leave and replacing him with Danny Amendola, not to mention the lack of Aaron Hernandez. No need to wax poetically about his criminal behavior, but it was an unmitigated offensive loss for the team.
In terms of who comes out on top in this category? It's New England. They pass for more yards, have a more varied suite of weapons and has the better pocket quarterback. Carolina caught a break when Vernon Davis was injured early in Week 10, but Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for the secondary. Size is a huge issue for the Panthers, and Gronk is the biggest and strongest player they've faced.
This all sounds like a denigration of Carolina's passing attack, but it's really not. It's a case of veteran offense vs. young(er) offense. The wild card is pass rush. New England doesn't have the ability to get after Cam Newton the way Carolina can with Brady, and that will be interesting to see how this changes the game.
On the ground the Carolina and New England are almost at parity. Ron Rivera's team rank 10th in the league in rushing, while the Patriots use a varied attack to rank 8th. Where the two teams move in wildly divergent directions is run defense, and it's here where the Panthers will dominant Monday night's matchup.
Carolina rank second in the league in run stopping, averaging just 82.0 yards allowed while New England rank 30th. It's hard to believe the Patriots will be able to run through the line as constructed, especially while Star Lotulelei and Luke Kuechly are manning the middle.
This shift will force the Patriots into a passing game, which has mixed benefits.
So often we see prime time games fizzle out into boring messes due to sloppy play. Neither team can afford to slack off on Monday night, as Carolina is desperately trying to catch New Orleans while the Patriots aim to fend off the New York Jets.
The old axiom is "defense wins championships," but one game is enough for now. Has Carolina seen a veteran team with this much talent in 2013? No, but the Patriots haven't faced a defense like the Panthers.
It will be a much more even-keeled game than Week 10's defensive slugfest, but I think the Panthers come out on top with the home field advantage.