CAROLINA PANTHERS (2-1) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2-1)
SERIES HISTORY: Sixth regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 3-2. However, the most important meeting came in Super Bowl XXXVIII, with New England winning 32-29 in Houston. The last matchup came in 2013, with the Panthers winning 24-20 at home in a Monday night game
KEYS TO THE GAME: There was much hand-wringing in New England after the Kansas City Chiefs went into Gillette Stadium and dominated the Patriots in a 42-27 win on opening night. Since then Tom Brady has thrown for 825 yards and eight touchdowns, and New England has scored 72 points in wins over New Orleans and Houston. The Patriots' defense, on the other hand, is another story. The unit, which ranks last in the NFL to open the season, gave up 417 yards in a too-close-for-comfort, 36-33, come-from-behind win over Houston at home on Sunday. Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, making just the second start of his career, completed 22 of 33 pass attempts for 301 yards.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton called this Sunday's game "gut-check time foe a lot of people." He added: "And that's including myself." Head coach Ron Rivera has said Newton was "knocking the rust off" as he comes back from shoulder surgery in March. Newton was 17-for-26 for 167 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions in a 34-13 loss to New Orleans last week. "Things on the offensive side have to be better," Newton said after losing to a Saints team that had surrendered 65 points and 773 yards in two losses to begin the season. "I'm proclaiming that (things will get better). So, moving forward, there's no need to panic, there's no need to rush, there's no need to be up in arms about the situation." Making matters worse for Newton are the loss of tight end Greg Olsen, who suffered a broken foot in the Panthers' second game and will miss 6-8 weeks, and a knee injury that has No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin listed as questionable.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
-- Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey vs. New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy. While Carolina is still experimenting with its rookie, McCaffrey is coming off a 101-yard receiving day against New Orleans. Van Noy has been the Patriots' defensive signal caller with Dont'a Hightower missing the past two games.
-- New England quarterback Tom Brady vs. the Panthers' young secondary. New England tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan are all averaging more 15 yards per reception in the season's first three games. And now Brady will be taking aim at a Panthers defense that gave up pass plays of more than 20 yards to four different Saints receivers on Sunday.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
--Doubtful: RB Rex Burkhead (ribs)
--Questionable: T Marcus Cannon (ankle, concussion), LB Dont'a Hightower (knee), S Brandon King (hamstring), CB Eric Rowe (groin), WR Matt Slater (hamstring)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly: He's coming off an eight-tackle performance against New Orleans, which for him marks a relatively quiet outing. Kuechly seemed bothered at times when the Panthers didn't appear to recognize some of the schemes the Saints were using. The trip to New England is notable because Kuechly is a former Boston College standout and this is his first trip back in a playing capacity other than a 2014 preseason game.
FAST FACTS: Carolina QB Cam Newton hasn't thrown a touchdown in the past two games and is coming off a 167-yard, three-interception effort against New Orleans. RB Jonathan Stewart has 6,800 career rushing yards and needs 47 to become team's all-time leader (DE ANGELO WILLIAMS, 6,846). Rookie RB Christian McCaffrey ranks first among NFL rookies in receiving yards (173) and second in catches (18). LB Julius Peppers ranks fifth in NFL history with 146 career sacks. LB Thomas Davis had a career-high 17 tackles in last meeting between the two teams. ... QB Tom Brady passed for 378 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions last week. That efforst was good enough for a 146.2 QB. RB Mike Gillislee is tied for NFL lead with four rushing touchdowns. TE Rob Gronkowski has 14 catches for 205 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games. WR Brandin Cooks led the Patriots with 131 receiving yards and two touchdowns last week. LB Kyle Van Noy led the team with 11 tackles in Week 3.
PREDICTION: After a subpar performance in a Week 1 home loss to Kansas City, Tom Brady seems to have adjusted to life with Julian Edelman. Brady has eight touchdowns and more than 800 yards through the air in the past two weeks. The Panthers have too many questions with their passing game.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 34-19.