The Carolina Panthers' defense is one of the best in the league and getting better each week. (USA Today photo)

The Carolina Panthers’ defense is one of the best in the league and getting better each week. (USA Today photo)

The New England Patriots travel to Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football. The game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.

The Patriots (7-2) are coming off of a bye week but ended their first half on a good note by scoring an NFL season high 55 points in dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Panthers (6-3) beat the San Francisco 49ers in Frisco on Sunday 10-9. The Panthers were able to shut down the Niners in the second half and come away with a huge win on the road that thrust them into the thick of the playoff picture.

We’ll post a detailed breakdown of the matchups later this week, but here are five first impressions of the Carolina Panthers:

Matchup Much Tougher Than Anticipated Earlier This Summer:
When this game was initially shown on the Patriots 2013 schedule, many would have pointed at it as a check mark in the win column….not so fast.

Carolina, after a slow start has won 5 in a row and now is the thick of the NFC playoff race. Head Coach Ron Rivera has his players believing in his team and after a very impressive win this weekend in San Francisco, has many NFL pundits doing the same.

The Niners entered Sunday on their own five game winning streak and were seen as just hitting their stride and were playing at home. With the win, the Panthers won’t be the underdogs against the Patriots on Monday night, they will be favored.

Panthers Defense Now One of the Best:
Carolina has transformed their defense from one of the worst just a few seasons ago to now one of the best in the NFL. They’ve allowed 115 points on the season, and only the Kansas City Chiefs have allowed less.

During their current five game winning streak, they are averaging giving up only 11.4 points per game and haven’t allowed more than 15 points in any of them. Currently they are the #2 defense against the run, (82 yards per game) and the #4 defense against the pass, (201.3 yards per game).

Looking at the last five games:

Panthers Defensive Stats
Opponent                                                                       Opp. Score     W/L    Rush Yds    Pass Yds

______________________________________________________________________

Minnesota Vikings 10 W 75 215
St. Louis Rams 15 W 63 254
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13 W 48 249
Atlanta Falcons 10 W 78 211
San Francisco 49ers 9 W 105 46

It starts upfront with one of the best front sevens in the league. The Panthers used their first two picks in the 2013 draft on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. And they keep it simple, there isn’t a lot of trickery, exotic formations and blitz packages. They stick to their base defense and make you beat them.

Looking at the numbers from the Niners game, they sacked QB Colin Kaepernick six times and had seven more hurries in just 28 passes attempted. Four of the sacks came when rushing four or fewer defenders. The 49ers were just 2-for-13 on third down.

The linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have been the big playmakers for the defense with Kuechly being one of if not the best coverage linebacker in the league.

Running Game Keeps The Offense Balanced:
The Panthers have a very good running game and have been bolstered by the return of Jonathan Stewart to go along with the dangerous DeAngelo Williams who is on pace for a 1000 yard season, fullback Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton who can be a big factor rushing from the QB position.

With the Patriots struggles in stopping the run in the last few games, the Panthers will want to take advantage of that and open up play action, something they’ve been successful on during their current winning streak.

Each of the different runners brings something different to the table and the Panthers will be looking to pound the ball and control the clock. The Panthers average 4.0 yards per carry and 128 yards per game on the ground.

Cam Newton And Shula, A Good Match:
New Carolina Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula has gotten some very good play out of QB Cam Newton this season and all signs are pointing to them getting even more out of the young signal caller as the season moves down the stretch.

Shula has tried to improve Newton’s play this season by getting him to make quicker decisions, read the defenses faster and get the football out of his hand faster. And he has, as well as having Newton buying into his system as the Panthers have rolled off five wins in a row.

Shula has him making better decisions which places a lot of stress on the defense, particularly in the pass-rush while the coverage units on the backend have their own issues because there’s that time clock ticking in a lot of people’s heads and Newton can extend plays if need be and by scrambling can make plays with his feet or by throwing on the run.

For the season, Newton has completed 62.7 percent of his passes, 170 of 271 for 1970 yards 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.

Mentally Tough Team, Taking It One Game At A Time:
It has been awhile, since the Panthers have been relevant in the league….about 5 years but their new found success is not getting to the player’s heads and coach Ron Rivera has kept the focus on the most important game of the year…the next one.

“If you’re winning, you’re more relevant and people pay more attention to you – and deservedly so,” Rivera said. “We’ve got good players that deserve some recognition. They’ve worked hard at it.”

But the big focus isn’t getting lost as he added, “That’s great. I hope they enjoy it, but once they come in Wednesday, the focus is now on New England.”

Mike Mitchell summed it up best on Sunday after the win against the 49ers saying, “We’re relevant. We’re here. And we’ve got the biggest game Monday night. It’s the biggest game because it’s the next game. We look forward to preparing to try to win it.”

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