(Updated: Updating with Benjamin practicing)
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick built his reputation as a defensive guru so his team’s inability to slow the opposition has been among the more stunning developments in the first month of the season. Despite ranking last in the NFL in defense, the reigning Super Bowl champions go for their third straight win over the visiting Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Patriots are giving up 31.7 points and a staggering 461.0 yards per game and only the sensational play of quarterback Tom Brady has allowed them to overcome the glaring defensive deficiencies. “The problem with us now, we have too many things to fix,” New England safety Devin McCourty said. “It’s a week-by-week thing where we need to keep getting better. ... Guys aren’t panicking. They’re just coming to work trying to get better. Guys are more focused on that, than stats or anything else.” The Panthers also are 2-1 but are having issues that belie their record -- they have scored one touchdown in two weeks and are coming off a 34-13 beating at home to a New Orleans team that was shredded for 36 points and 555 yards by the Patriots one week earlier. “It has happened in all three games: We’ve missed opportunities to complete big plays - big passes for big plays,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “You can’t settle for field goals against explosive teams. If you do that, you’re not going to win.”
TV: 1 p.m. ET, CBS. LINE: Patriots -9. O/U: 51
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (2-1): Carolina’s defense allowed three points in each of its first two wins -- against San Francisco and Buffalo -- but had no answers for Drew Brees and the Saints. Former NFL MVP Cam Newton, who underwent surgery on his rotator cuff in the offseason, has twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns but received positive news when top wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who hurt his knee in last week’s setback, was a full participant in Thursday’s practice. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, the No. 8 pick in this year’s NFL draft, has done little in the ground game but had nine receptions for 101 yards against New Orleans. The Panthers’ defense ranks third in the league against the pass, allowing 162.0 yards per game.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (2-1): New England’s defense was carved up by Kansas City in a 42-27 season-opening loss and allowed Houston rookie Deshaun Watson to throw for 301 yards in his second career start in last week’s 36-33 victory over the Texans. Brady was the league’s lowest-rated passer after Week 1 but has rebounded to win consecutive NFL Player of the Week awards, throwing for 378 yards and five touchdowns to rally the Patriots to a last-second victory a week ago. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks finally showed why New England used two draft picks to trade for him, hauling in five catches for 131 yards and two TDs against the Texans. The Patriots also have struggled against the run, yielding an average of 130.3 yards.
1. Brady has a passer rating of 146.5 after throwing for 825 yards with eight TDs and zero picks in the past two games.
2. Newton threw for three touchdowns and rushed for 62 yards in a 24-20 win over visiting New England in November 2013.
3. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski has 14 receptions and two scores in the past two weeks.
PREDICTION: Patriots 27, Panthers 23