New England Patriots

L-R: Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels

The Patriots and Panthers are two teams heading in opposite directions heading into their meeting on Sunday. After a rough start to the season, the Patriots are 3-1 in their last four games, getting their record back to .500. Meanwhile, Carolina has slipped after a 3-0 start, and are 1-4 since the beginning of October. Their record also sits at .500.

For the Patriots, their strong month has been built on more consistent play. They’ve seemingly worked through offensive line issues that plagued them earlier in the season, and have cut back on penalties and other mental mistakes. New England was the 12th-most penalized team through the first four weeks of the season, they ranked 20th in Weeks 5-8.

Meanwhile, the Panthers have been battling mounting injuries to key players. All four of their losses have come without star running back Christian McCaffrey. Starting quarterback Sam Darnold has also been banged up the last few weeks, and began this week in concussion protocol.

Will the Patriots be able to build on their impressive month of October, and continue on their upward trajectory? Or will the Panthers steady things on their end? Here’s a look at the matchups each team needs to win if it wants to get back above .500…

  • When New England has the ball: Isaiah Wynn & Michael Onwenu vs. Hasson Reddick and Brian Burns

    Bill Belichick said it almost immediately during his press availability on Wednesday, noting the Panthers “are obviously very good on defense.” Carolina is allowing just 19.9 points per game, the fifth-fewest in the league.

    Like the Patriots, the Panthers’ success on the defensive side of the ball starts up front. Their 21 total sacks are tied for the fourth-most in the NFL, with defensive ends Hasson Reddick (7.5) and Brian Burns (4.5) accounting for nearly half of those.

    The Patriots’ offensive line has done a better job protecting Mac Jones in recent weeks, leading to more overall success on the offensive side of the ball. Jones is PFF’s highest-rated quarterback since Week 5, and the offense has seemed to function with less resistance since the return of Isaiah Wynn and moving Michael Onwenu out to right tackle. However, this week will be as big of a test as they’ve faced this season.

  • When Carolina has the ball: Panthers receivers vs. Patriots secondary

    This is a more big picture matchup then we usually feature, but there’s so much uncertainty surrounding the Patriots’ defensive backs it’s hard to nail down what things could look like on Sunday. We already know the team will be without Jonathan Jones, and now it looks as though J.C. Jackson may not play after missing practice Wednesday and Thursday due to an undisclosed illness.

    Beyond Jones and Jackson, things get blurry in the Patriots’ secondary. Jalen Mills should feature as one of the top outside cornerbacks, with Joejuan Williams on the other side. Based on what we’ve seen the past few weeks, expect Myles Bryant in the slot. Still, Williams and Bryant began the year as backups, and depth will be thin.

    Carolina has struggled throwing the ball at times this year, but the Panthers still boast potential explosive playmakers at the wide receiver position. Belichick described the group on Wednesday as “having a lot of juice.” How the Patriots handle them without two of their three most-used defensive backs will be crucial to watch.

  • Bonus: Josh McDaniels vs. Stephon Gilmore

    “No comment.”

    That was Patriots cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino’s answer when asked this week if he’d advise offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to try and avoid current Panthers and former Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore when calling plays this week.

    In his Carolina debut last week, Gilmore played just 17 defensive snaps – although he was on the field for a game-sealing interception working against Kyle Pitts. Speaking with Patriots media on Thursday, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said he expects Gilmore to have a third-down specific role for at least the next few weeks.

    While Gilmore does need time to pick up the Panthers’ defensive scheme, this week is a unique opportunity given his likely intimate knowledge of the Patriots’ offense. He admitted this week that he has “a lot [of] extra” motivation heading into this game against his former team.

    At the very least, Gilmore gives the Panthers a major advantage in the film room. Even though he wasn’t on the field before getting traded, players and coaches raved about his teaching ability helping teammates, calling him ‘Coach Steph.’ But how much will he be able to use that knowledge himself on the field on Sunday? Will his role expand beyond third downs? That will be something to watch for early on.