Monday, November 18, 2013

NFL Preview 2013 Week 11: Patriots vs Panthers

New England Patriots vs Carolina Panthers

Market Watch

Last week the advanced line on this game was a 'pick em'. New England didn't play in Week 10, but the Panthers upset the 49ers in San Francisco. That prompted a line shift when lines reopened on Monday, which saw Carolina as -2.5 point favorites. Not much has changed since then, but some sportsbooks are putting up -3's.

What should the true line of this game be?  By the numbers, the Panthers should be favored by more than a field goal. By situation, the current line is where it should be. When you give Bill Belichick and company an extra week to prepare and make them an underdog, you have to account for that.

68 percent of bets are on New England.

Keep an eye on

When we take a closer look at the ratings, it's surprising that Cam Newton and the rest of the Carolina offense are ranked higher than the Patriots in every meaningful category. The Panthers rank near the top in rushing, drive efficiency, third down conversions, and red zone offense.

Defensively, the Patriots don't match up very well. Due to injuries, their run defense has taken a big hit and they continue to trend in the wrong direction. They acquired Sopoaga to help shore up the middle, but how effective will that be against a team loaded with running options?  Newton, Williams, and Tolbert can hurt you in a variety of ways. With Mayo out, Spikes, Ninkovich, and Jones need to have big games.

On the back end, Dennard is out, and Talib and Arrington are listed as 'questionable'. I expect the latter two to play, but how healthy are they? The most important player here is Talib. If he can play without any setbacks, they have a good shot at slowing down the Carolina passing game. Since acquiring him, no other player has made as big a difference in the secondary.

On the other side, the Patriots got a boost in practice when Vereen returned from injury. Their running game was efficient without him, but with him back on the field New England can scheme a more balanced offense. And they will need it because there aren't too many weaknesses in this Panthers unit. From the start of the drive all the way down to the red zone, Carolina's defense make you earn every yard and every point. Perhaps the scariest thing is they continue to rise in the rankings for third down and red zone stops.

A key matchup to look for will be in the trenches. Solder has been great at left tackle and Mankins has been solid at guard, but beyond that it's a guessing game. Will backup right tackle Marcus Cannon be able to handle Charles Johnson?  Along with Hardy, the Panthers throw one of the best pass rushing duos at the quarterback. Once you add Star Lotulelei to the mix on the inside, it can get very dicey for opposing quarterbacks in a hurry.

Gronkowki's return has done wonders for Tom Brady, and you can be sure he'll be targeted early and often - especially if Brady is getting pressured early on. Carolina can counter with Kuechly and Davis over the middle. Combined, they've shut down both Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez in recent weeks. Gronk is on another level though, so this will be an intriguing matchup.

When we take a closer look at the peripheral stats, there is not much of an advantage either way. Both teams rank near the top in average net starting field position, offensive penalties, and turnover differential. The Patriots are the top ranked special teams unit in the NFL, so if this game comes down to a play in this area they could hold the edge.

Bottom Line

At the start of the week I was leaning towards the Panthers. There is no doubt that they should be rated higher in the power rankings and they have home field advantage. However, you have to respect what a bye week can do for a team like New England. Coaching makes a difference in this league and a veteran team is getting time to rest up.

You also have to take into consideration that this is a prime-time game. The Panthers went on their win streak after they were dismissed early in the season. It's one thing to play great when the pressure is off, but now they are expected to win on a national stage. I'm not sure they are ready to play that role. Conversely, how often do we see New England as an underdog? It's always enticing to consider the Patriots when they are spotted points.

Since a strong case could be made for either side, it's probably best to sit this one out entirely.