Patriots Vs. Panthers Preview: What To Watch For In Week 4 Clash At Gillette Stadium

The New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers will square off Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Here’s everything you need to know about the matchup:

The Patriots likely will be without Rex Burkhead (ribs) for the second consecutive game, as the running back is listed as doubtful. Four other Patriots are listed as questionable: linebacker Dont’a Hightower (knee), special teamer Matthew Slater (hamstring), cornerback Eric Rowe (groin) and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle/concussion).

Hightower is expected to play after sitting out last week, per a report from the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe.

For Carolina, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will play after suffering a knee injury last week that appeared serious at the time. The Panthers will be without several key players, however, as starting center Ryan Kalil, starting cornerback Daryl Worley and rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel all have been ruled out. And that’s not even including star tight end Greg Olsen, who currently is on injured reserve.

Quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Thomas Davis also are dealing with shoulder and rib injuries, respectively.

Tom Brady has been fantastic over the past two weeks, throwing for more 825 yards and eight touchdowns with zero interceptions to earn back-to-back AFC Offensive Player of the Week awards. New England’s running game, however, has been far from prolific.

Mike Gillislee leads the team with 145 rushing yards and four touchdowns but is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry — a far cry from the NFL-leading 5.7 he averaged last season. Dion Lewis hardly has played on offense, though that could change this week with Burkhead again sidelined.

On paper, this should be a good week for the Patriots’ ground game to get going, since the Panthers allowed 149 rushing yards to the New Orleans Saints last Sunday.

The strength of Carolina’s defense is its linebacking corps, which features three-time All-Pro Luke Kuechly flanked by the veteran Davis — a Pro Bowler in each of the last two seasons — and 2015 first-round draft pick Shaq Thompson. Thompson is a versatile player who handles the responsibilities of a nickel back in some situations.

The Panthers also are strong up front, with Kawann Short anchoring a veteran defensive line, but their diminished, no-name secondary will be susceptible against Brady and his slew of weapons. Julius Peppers, who played against Brady in Super Bowl XXXVIII, leads the Panthers with 2 1/2 sacks.

Carolina allowed six total points in wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills but was blown out by Drew Brees and the Saints 34-16.

There’s no sugar-coating it: The Patriots’ defense has been a gosh-darn trainwreck this season. They rank dead last in points allowed per game, yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game and DVOA, and they just gave up 30 points to a rookie quarterback last week.

That doesn’t mean New England’s D is a lost cause, though. It’s still a very talented unit — albeit a rather shallow one — that should improve once Hightower returns. It also will be facing a Panthers offense that has scored just three touchdowns all season and a quarterback in Newton who barely resembles the player he was when he earned NFL MVP honors in 2015.

Newton ranked last in the league in completion percentage and 28th in passer ratings last season, and he’s coming off a three-interception performance in last week’s loss to the Saints. His top receivers are the banged-up Benjamin and Devin Funchess, two big bodies who stand 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4, respectively.

A player to watch for Carolina will be dual-threat rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. The Patriots have struggled against pass-catching backs this season — their 253 receiving yards allowed to running backs this season ranks second-to-last in the NFL — and McCaffrey excelled in that capacity against the Saints, catching nine passes for 101 yards.

Thumbnail photo via Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports Images

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