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Panthers vs Patriots offensive preview: Pats defense presents a solid test

Belichick and company are no joke. How will Darnold and the offense cope?

NFL: OCT 31 Panthers at Falcons Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers (4-4) return home to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. on Sunday to take on the New England Patriots (4-4). The Panthers halted a four-game losing streak on Sunday against the Falcons, a game I predicted Carolina would lose.

Meanwhile, Mac Jones and the Patriots have won three of their last four contests, including Sunday’s big win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

Let’s jump into how the Panthers offense could fair against the Pats defense.

Panthers offense

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Yards per game: 328.5 (25th)
Pass yards per game: 214 (28th)
Rush yards per game: 114.5 (16th)
Points per game: 20.6 (22nd)

The Panthers are slowly showing their hand as one of the NFL’s worst passing games, and the absence of Christian McCaffrey is playing a role in that. Despite winning, quarterback Sam Darnold passed for just 129 yards against a poor Falcons defense on Sunday. The only plus was that Darnold wasn’t sacked and he didn’t throw any interceptions. Darnold is averaging 156 pass yards per game over the past four games. It’s not pretty. To make matters worse, Darnold left the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion, putting his status for Sunday in doubt.

Matt Rhule said on Monday that he hopes McCaffrey will play this week, and if not this week it would likely be next week. Rhule said McCaffrey is set to practice on Wednesday.

Chubba Hubbard has filled in reasonably well for McCaffrey, but not more than that. He has rushed for at least 60 yards in three of his last four games, including two touchdowns during that span. He’s serviceable but I think we’re still all waiting for Hubbard to have a breakout game.

Patriots defense

New England Patriots Vs. Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Yards per game: 352.9 (13th)
Pass yards per game: 240 (14th)
Rush yards per game: 112.8 (16th)
Points per game: 20.5 (8th)
Turnovers: 13 (T-3rd)

The Patriots defense presents the biggest test for the Panthers offense since their matchup against the Eagles defense a few weeks ago. The Pats are still coached by one of the greatest, which means their defense is generally going to be decent every year. The Patriots are forcing a good amount of turnovers this year, including 10 interceptions, and their 20.5 points against is in the top ten of the NFL.

As expected, prized free agent signing Matthew Judon is having a good season, currently third in the NFL with eight sacks. Meanwhile, 2020 second-round draft pick Kyle Dugger is also having a nice campaign at safety with 54 tackles and two interceptions, on pace for a 108 tackle, four pick season.

Given Darnold’s performance over the past month, it seems like we’re looking at another sub-175 yard passing day for the Panthers quarterback if he’s able to suit up and play. Things obviously change if PJ Walker starts in his absence — and if McCaffrey plays — but it’s not clear what will happen at this point.

Overall match-up

I’m once again predicting a Panthers loss if McCaffrey doesn’t play, and I hope the Panthers prove me wrong again. The Patriots defense is playing better than the Panthers’ offense after eight games and it’s tough to say whether Carolina’s strong defense will be able to dominate the game if Darnold is unable to play.

Mac Jones has been improving every week and is showing himself capable of growing into a solid NFL quarterback. He might not have a great day against Carolina’s defense but I think, overall, I’d bet on New England this Sunday.