Tonight’s match-up in Carolina is one of the most pivotal games of the season for the Patriots, and one that has quite a bit at stake for both teams.

For the Panthers this is a chance to go out and make a statement on national television that last week’s win over the 49ers wasn’t a fluke, and knocking off Tom Brady and the Patriots would certainly be a great way to let the world know that they’re potentially a contender a little over one month from now.  To them, tonight’s contest has massive implications in terms of finding out how good they really are, and this game is probably going to be tougher than many may be expecting.


Tom Brady and the Patriots will face a huge test tonight in Carolina against the Panthers. (USA TODAY Images)

And make no mistake, this is a game that the Patriots need to win.  They’re already set to face a tough Denver Broncos team that’s set to visit Foxboro next Sunday night, and the upcoming stretch of games are ones that could go either way and will likely determine their season.  Should they lose tonight, it’s not out of the question that they could fall short Sunday against Denver, beat Houston, get upset by Cleveland at home, and then lose a tough one on the road in Miami.  All of a sudden that would leave them battling to finish 10-6 and would likely knock them out of contention for a first round bye.

However, if history is any indication, the chances of a late season losing streak are pretty unlikely.  In the second half of their seasons since 2010, the Patriots are 24-1, with the only loss coming at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers last season.  But this season has presented a host of new challenges that has seen them lose key components on both sides of the football, and injuries have obviously continued to be a problem.  Over that previous span they at least had some continuity, and considering all the problems they’ve had this season just makes what they’ve done even more impressive.

Tonight will see them try and make due yet again.  Defensive back Alfonzo Dennard was added to the list of players who won’t suit up tonight, leaving the secondary short-handed with another one of their better players sidelined.  They’ll be starting rookie Duron Harmon at safety in place of the injured Steve Gregory, and will need a standout performance from Aqib Talib against Steve Smith.  Talib is battling back from a hip injury that has sidelined him in recent weeks, and it’s going to be interesting to see if he’s able to still be the dominant shut-down player he had been before he got hurt.

Marcus Cannon got his first start at right tackle two weeks ago after replacing Sebastian Vollmer, and he played relatively well. Tonight may be a bigger test and his performance will be one to watch against a Carolina defense that will likely be doing all they can to disrupt Tom Brady and New England’s offense.  This is a Panthers team that all week has probably heard that despite having the NFL’s second-ranked defense they haven’t beaten anyone, and now they have the opportunity to knock off one of the best quarterback and coach tandems in the league and make a statement on national television.

Had this game been in Foxboro, it may have been a different story.  But you can expect the home crowd to be fired up and it will likely be a playoff-like atmosphere. As a result, it will be up to the Patriots to try and get out in front early, which is something the Panthers have been good at preventing.  Carolina has yet to allow a touchdown in the first quarter this season, and they’ve led every game at the half with the exception of their win in San Francisco, when they trailed 9-7.  Forcing the Panthers to play from behind and taking them out of their game plan will be a a key task for New England’s offense, who will be looking to build on their 55 point outburst against Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

Putting up that many points against the Panthers is highly unlikely and scoring points in general against them has been difficult recently.  This is a team that during their current five-game winning streak hasn’t allowed more than 15 points, and more importantly, it’s one of the most physical fronts New England has faced all season.

There’s certainly a lot on the line and this is definitely a big game for both teams. Both have a lot to prove, and a win for either one will help build some momentum heading into the final six games of the season.  Hopefully it’s New England who comes out on top.

WASHINGTON’S BUS EGGED ON THE WAY TO LINCOLN FINANCIAL FIELD:

It’s always interesting hearing how fans handle things in other cities, and it’s quite the contrast in Philadelphia in terms of how hardcore their fans are.  Washington nose tackle Chris Baker posted a picture Sunday showing that the team bus had been egged by fans in Philadelphia as it headed to Lincoln Financial field on Sunday.  It’s a tough environment and the fans were obviously fired up, and the Eagles managed to get it done after coming away with a 24-16 win at home on Sunday.

WES WELKER SUFFERS CONCUSSION SUNDAY NIGHT:

One of the bigger storylines leading up to next weekend’s match-up between the Broncos and Patriots will likely be the return of Denver receiver Wes Welker to New England, although it may not come to fruition.  According to ESPN Welker is being evaluated for a concussion that he suffered during the fourth quarter of the Broncos win over the Chiefs Sunday night, and that could potentially knock him out of action for this week.  In accordance with the league’s concussion protocol the earliest Welker could even practice now would be Friday, and that would require him passing a baseline test today.  Needless to say that will be something to keep an eye on this week.

ON TO THIS MORNING’S LINKS:

BOSTON HERALD:

Duron Harmon won’t let questions stop him - Mark Daniels – Daniels has a great piece on the rookie safety, who will get his first start of the season in Carolina tonight.

Tom Brady, Patriots have plenty to prove vs. Panthers – Karen Guregian – Guregian writes that Brady’s big performance two weeks ago was against the fading Steelers, and that the Panthers will be much more of a reality check.

Brandon Spikes fills seats with NC family, friends – Jeff Howe – Howe files his notebook this morning, which leads off with the fact that Spikes has about fifthy friends and family who will be on hand tonight to watch he and his teammates battle Carolina.

Five keys to a Patriots victory – Jeff Howe – Howe has his keys to tonight’s game, including the fact New England needs to continue their attack on the ground against Carolina.

BOSTON GLOBE:

Panthers aren’t as big a challenge for Patriots as you may think - Adam Kaufman – Kaufman wonders if we can dial back the fawning that has been done over Carolina over the past week.

Panthers QB Cam Newton ready for test – Julian Benbow – Benbow has a good article on Newton, who pulled off one of his biggest road tests last week and will try to do the same at home tonight.

Patriots dominate in the second half of seasons - Michael Whitmer – Whitmer looks at how dominating the Patriots have been in the second half of their seasons in recent years.

WEEI:

Breaking down Sunday’s action from Patriots perspective - Christopher Price – Price goes through some of yesterday’s game and talks about the implications each one could have on the Patriots.

WORCESTER TELEGRAM:

Patriots won’t get free pass vs. Panthers – Jennifer Toland – Toland has an article on tonight’s game, and highlights former Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the Panthers with 90 tackles and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions.

NEPATRIOTSDRAFT.COM:

New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers: Ten Keys to Week 11 – Matthew Jones - Jones has his keys to tonight’s game, including whether or not Tom Brady can build off of his performance from two weeks ago.