By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 27, 2004

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Patriots need a rebound barometer right now. Who better than the team they beat for their most recent championship?

Patriots/Panthers
Close-Up
Where: Bank Of America Stadium
Charlotte, NC
When: Saturday 8/28/04
8:00 PM EDT
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 930
2003 Team
Records:
Patriots 17-2
Panthers 14-6
Latest Line: Panthers by 1 1/2
Add to this the fact that preseason game number three is usually a dress rehearsal for the regular season where coaches actually try to win, and you have an awesome test for the Patriots Saturday night. The NFC champion Carolina Panthers and their rabid home fans will be gnashing their teeth at the sight of the team they barely lost to seven months ago in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. The games still don't count, but it presents a formidable challenge for the Patriots, especially in light of the 31-3 thumping they suffered in Cincinnati last Saturday night.

Coaches John Fox and Bill Belichick have their own goals and objectives for this preseason matchup, but Fox might have some extra goals of his own. For the purpose of raising his team's hunger level and its intensity going into the regular season, Fox may play up the revenge factor and tell his first unit to "go after those guys and show them that the wrong team won the Super Bowl". If a convincing win over the Patriots might propel them towards a fast start for the regular season, look for the Panthers to come out like a bunch of wild animals.

Something else to consider: If the Panthers, a far more talented team than the Bengals, come at the Patriots with at least the same gumption that the Bengals had, the Patriots may be in for a long night if they themselves are still in a fit of boredom over the preseason. What Rudi Johnson did to the Patriots could pale to what Stephen Davis and DeShawn Foster could do. Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad might be licking their chops if Ty Law and Tyrone Poole are checked closely by the officials.

To say nothing of that defensive line of Carolina's, who got beat into submission by the unheralded Patriot offensive line in February. If the Patriot linemen still don't have their rhythm and timing down and their intensity back, they will get plowed over, plain and simple.

All in all, Saturday night's game represents a very tough test for the Patriots, as perhaps the worst of all possible opponents to bounce back from a big loss is on deck. The Patriots could likely get thumped worse because, unlike the Bengals, the Panthers are the real deal, and an adequate show of intensity by the Patriots could still turn out to be not enough.

This is quite a turnaround in perception from last week at this time. Nobody in Patriot Nation expected Cincinnati to come out and play like they did. Nobody expected the Patriots to be a team in need of a comeuppance. Nobody expected the general thought towards this game be centered around concern versus dress rehearsal.

As was stated, the third preseason game is usually used as a dry run for the season opener. It might follow that Belichick will unveil a few more intricate plays against Carolina than he did against Cincinnati. Some Bengal players commented that all they saw from the Patriots was vanilla, a common element in preseason games and especially against future regular season opponents. With the Patriots not having to face Carolina this season (unless we get a Super rematch), Belichick can throw in a few wrinkles against Carolina and see how his first unit handles it.

Like the Super Bowl, the Panthers are vulnerable in the secondary. Ricky Manning looked like a superstar in the NFC playoffs but was humiliated by the Patriot receivers in the big game. The one bright spot for the secondary was Reggie Howard (picked off Tom Brady), but he bolted for Miami in the offseason. If Brady gets anywhere near the time he got in February, or if Belichick and Charlie Weis put in a nifty rollout package, receivers will get open downfield.

Otherwise, it could be a long night for the Patriots if the Panthers truly wish it to be. The health of Matt Light makes the left tackle position vulnerable, and the rest of the offensive line has been generally out of sync. Both Brady and Rohan Davey have been hurried more often than not in their throws, and the entire front seven of Carolina could have a huge evening. And if the run defense woes haven't been remedied, the two Panther backs could have a bigger night than Johnson did last week.

Basically this game will come down to how much intensity and execution the Patriots have regained. Following a game where there was nothing to like except perhaps for the punting and the nose tackle position (we trust the coach on that point), the Patriots have nowhere to go but up on most every front. The biggest positive that the Patriots can take into this game is their own zeal for redemption and a need to "get things back to normal" in Foxborough.

Should both teams come out with their "A" game, what can we expect?

Belichick will once again take a long look at the nose tackle situation. Watch closely at how well Davis fares on runs up the middle. Johnson got lots of hay on off tackle runs last week, and the linebackers and safeties bore most of the blame. If Davis is not able to break off runs up the gut, consider that a good sign.

The starting offensive line needs to play as much as possible. Against this defense, it is not likely that Corey Dillon will be worn out by night's end unless Tom Ashworth dominates Julius Peppers again and Weis cannot resist picking on him again. What might be a goal is to see if Brady can get a little more time to throw, even though the rollouts were more of a factor in Brady not getting sacked in the Super Bowl than great blocking.

Belichick would love to get Davey at least a half of work. If that be the case, he has to shake off his lousy preseason and show everyone that he is fine at the helm if Brady gets hurt. This being the "dry run" game, Brady may actually see more than a half, but if Brady plays like Brady, it should be all right to pull Brady at halftime.

The Patriot defense in general would like to prevent Jake Delhomme from torching them like he did in the Super Bowl. Delhomme made some big plays even with the starting safeties in there. But he also went hot and cold, having lousy first and third quarters to offset insane second and fourth quarters. For their own pride and satisfaction, the Patriots need to keep better containment on Delhomme and not allow him to get into a comfort zone. Delhomme may be the hungriest Panther of them all, as he likely felt that he was the better quarterback in the big game and would have been champion if it were his team which had the ball last.

Yes, the game still won't count. But it is the third preseason tilt, and Patriot Nation will be expecting something a lot better than the last one.

Is it possible that this Panther encounter carries more importance than the last one? If your favorite championship is the next one (ask Brady), you'd have to answer yes.


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