The Week 11 matchup between the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots could be the best Monday Night Football game of the season. It's a meeting between one the the league's top offenses and best defenses, but inside each phase there are a few things to keep an eye on.
Tom Brady and Cam Newton will topics of pre-game coverage, but this game could be more about the ancillary pieces on each team. Quarterback play is obviously important, but Rob Gronkowski and DeAngelo Williams might have a greater impact for their respective teams based on past performance.
Establishing the run
New England and Carolina both utilize balanced offenses with schemes that branch from the run game. The Patriots have run the ball on 44-percent of downs, while the Panthers rely even more on their running backs at 52-percent.
Stevan Ridley becomes a focal point for New England. The third year running back is having a good season, and has shown on several occasions that he can play like an elite running back. Against the Steelers in Week 9 he ran for over 100 yards and two touchdowns -- but the Panthers defense is far better at stopping the run than Pittsburgh. He is paired with Shane Vereen, back from injury and he gives another speedy runner who can cause matchup issues.
Carolina's run defense is unpredictable. Marshawn Lynch was held to under 3.0 yards per carry, but speedier running backs like C.J. Spiller and Andre Ellington were able to find the edges and do a lot of damage. It's here where Ridley can succeed, provided the Patriots use him correctly.
Much is made of the Panthers' ability to stop runners, but teams haven't tested this run defense very often because they've been forced to throw. Only five running backs have carried the ball more than 15 times against Carolina, and there's a chance wearing down the front is the key to winning the matchup.
Establishing Ridley is vital, but tight end Rob Gronkowski represents the Patriots best chance to win.
Carolina's linebackers are talented run stoppers, but are often caught out of position when asked to cover tight ends. The team allowed Kyle Rudolph to gain 97 yards, Tony Gonzalez finished with 81 yards and a touchdown, while Zach Miller caught three passes for 42 yards.
The Panthers caught a break in Week 10 when Vernon Davis was injured in the first quarter. It changed how the San Francisco 49ers offense operated and forced Colin Kaepernick to do too much. Covering tight ends has been this defense's Achilles heel, and the Patriots have the means to attack it.
Gronkowski represents a particularly unique challenge. Carolina's secondary doesn't have much size, and lacks the ability to compete in jump ball situations. This should be exploited at every opportunity.
Managing the shootout
The Panthers don't have the weapons to hang in a shootout with New England. They're a clock control ground team with some deep threats, but they don't cope well when a team gets an early lead. Steve Smith and Greg Olsen are dangerous, but Ted Ginn is inconsistent and Brandon LaFell is more of a traditional possession receiver.
If Tom Brady can assert himself quickly it's unclear if Newton can get his team back in the game. In five of the team's six wins the Panthers held the lead at the end of the first quarter, while showing an inability to dig their way out of adversity in losses. Brady has the weapons to achieve this, as quick twitch slot receivers paired with Gronkowski can put points up quickly.
Newton forces his passes in these situations, tends to turn the ball over, and it's here where the offense gets in trouble. New England needs to control the tempo on offense early, and pressure Newton throughout the game.
A tale of two pass rushes
Both the Patriots and Panthers have amassed 29 sacks this season on defense, with Chandler Jones and Charles Johnson representing the best defensive linemen on each team.
Pressure is the key to shaking any quarterback, but this is especially true of Monday night's players. Tom Brady's passer rating drops 14 points when he's under pressure, while Cam Newton's falls by 11.
It's more important for Carolina to generate pressure early, because their run game should be more effective against the league's 29th-ranked run defense. It gives the Panthers another facet to the offense they can fall back on, which is a luxury the Patriots might now have.