A couple of hot teams are set to square off on Monday Night Football in Week 11. The Carolina Panthers have been one of the best bets in the league having won five consecutive games both straight up and against the spread. Meanwhile, the Pats have put together a mini streak of their own. They've won and covered in back-to-back games. The Pats have been perfect against the NFC South going 3-0 SU and ATS in their three games against the division this season.
In order to get an inside look at this matchup, we’ve enlisted the help of those who know these teams the best. Expert NFL bloggers Tim Dillon of the Patriots blog “Musket Fire” and Jesse Collin of the Panthers blog “Panthers 101” strap on the pads and debate which team will not only win Monday night but cover the spread.
WHY NEW ENGLAND WILL COVER
Tim Dillon is the editor of "Musket Fire". Follow them on Facebook and Twitter @Musket_Fire.
The Return of Injured Players
The Patriots have seen more than their fair share of injuries this season, but Monday night will mark the return of versatile running back Shane Vereen. He has the ability to line up at receiver or do damage in the backfield, so he is a key weapon Tom Brady will be sure to utilize. He will be a more reliable option on third downs than Brandon Bolden since he has much better hands.
On the defense, Aqib Talib is likely to return from a lingering hip injury this week. Cam Newton can shred a weak secondary, so Talib's presence will be key in shutting down Steve Smith.
Consistency of Aaron Dobson
Dobson has finally grown into a more reliable receiver and seems to be putting the nickname "Dropson" behind him. Brady clearly trusts him now more than ever, and he has the ability to be a key play-maker.
Carolina's defense is one of the best in the league so he will have a tough test, but his speed gives him an advantage.
You can never discount a future hall-of-famer, even when he hasn't had a statistically stellar year.
Brady's the heart and soul of the Patriots and will pick apart the Carolina defense if they don't pressure him or if they show any sign of weakness. When Brady's on the field, there's always the high potential for the Patriots to cover and win.
WHY CAROLINA WILL COVER
Jesse Collin is the head writer for "Panthers 101". You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter @Panthers_101.
No Wilfork, no Kelly, no dice
The Patriots suffered a huge blow when nose tackle Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles' tendon early in the season. The 6-foot-2, 325-pound space eater has been the longtime anchor of Bill Belichick's defense, earning five trips to the Pro Bowl in nearly a decade with the team.
Wilfork's ability to take on multiple blockers and stuff the run is virtually irreplaceable. To boot, New England also lost backup Tommy Kelly to a season-ending knee injury earlier this month. With the interior of the defensive line decimated by injuries, it's no surprise that the Patriots, who are surrendering over 128 yards per game on the ground, have struggled to stop the run.
That weakness should play right into the hands of the Panthers, who will look to wear down New England's thin defensive front with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton.
Kings of third down
Where the Patriots have struggled on third down, the Panthers have excelled. Tom Brady and co. are converting just 34.6 percent of third downs this season - 25th in the NFL. Meanwhile, opponents are converting just 33.9 percent of third downs on Sean McDermott's defense - fifth best in the NFL.
Conversely, New England ranks 24th in third-down defense (40.4 percent opponent conversion rate) while Carolina ranks third in third-down offense (46.2 percent conversion rate).
The Panthers' ability to both sustain drives with their offense and stifle them with their defense will allow them to control the ball, dictate the pace of the game and, most importantly, keep Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the high-octane Patriots offense watching from the sidelines.
Overwhelming pass rush
The Panthers defensive front presents the biggest challenge of the season for the Patriots offensive line. As the Bengals, Saints and Jets learned earlier this season, Tom Brady can be surprisingly average when the guys up front struggle to protect the pocket.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who've combined for 13.5 sacks, have made a living in opponents' backfields this season. Fueled by the home crowd and the national stage, the two bookends should have no problem making mincemeat of a New England offensive line that's surrendered 26 sacks this season.