FOXBORO, MA — No one could have ever imagined that a game against a 1-14 team could mean so much.
When the Patriots head down to play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, they will be playing for their first AFC title since 1997 and will also be looking to earn a first round bye for the upcoming playoffs. Should the Patriots win and should their division rival New York Jet team beat the Raiders in Oakland on Sunday, the Patriots will have a mere two games to win to earn a trip to New Orleans.
It’s likely that New England will be in the air on their way back to Boston by the time that the battle between the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders is over, but regardless of how that game turns out it won’t mean a thing without a win over the Panthers.
As for Carolina they’re trying to end a 14-game losing streak which is an NFL record tied with four other teams, one of which happens to include the Patriots. The 1990 Patriots, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 1980 New Orleans Saints, and the 1981 Baltimore Colts all share that prestigious honor. It’s a record they’ll likely do all they can not to set.
Despite their losing streak, the Panthers have played much better as of late offensively, surpassing 300-yards in total offense for the second straight week. They also have seen remarkable improvement from quarterback Chris Weinke who threw the ball 63-times last week in a 30-7 loss to Arizona last Sunday. Not to mention that even with Weinke’s 63-attempts the offensive line didn’t allow a sack, and they are on pace to set a team record for fewest sacks allowed in a season.
The only problem for Weinke this weekend may be who he will be throwing the ball to.
Wide receiver Isaac Byrd is listed as OUT for Sunday’s game. Fellow receiver Muhsin Muhammed (Toe) along with tight end Wesley Walls are both listed as DOUBTFUL and are expected to miss the game, and runningback Nick Goings (Back) and receiver Donald Hayes (Ankle) are both banged up but listed as PROBABLE.
Nevertheless, even with all the problems the Panthers have, New England head coach Bill Belichick isn’t taking them lightly.
“As it’s turned out, this really for us is a championship game,” said Belichick on Wednesday. “I think that’s the way you’ve to approach it. If we win the game we win the AFC East, it’s as simple as that. That’s the way we’re looking at it.”
“There’s all sorts of possibilities, but our focus is just trying to win the AFC East Championship and beat Carolina. The Jet-Oakland game may or may not mean anything depending on what we do, so we have to take care of our business.”
The Patriots will have to win the battle of field position, which against the Panthers may be difficult. Carolina has one of the best special teams units in the league. Punter Todd Sauerbrun leads the NFL in gross and net punting average, and kick-returner Steve Smith leads the NFL in kickoff return average and ranks sixth in the NFC in punt return average.
However when New England does have the ball, they should be able to move it. The Panthers are currently last in the league in total defense, and are also last in rushing defense which means the Patriots may want to spend most of the afternoon handing the ball off to Antowain Smith.
How they win it isn’t as important as making sure there isn’t anyone thinking about who they’ll be facing in the weeks ahead. Belichick appears to have them focused, and he’s not concerned with how all the possibilities may turn out. All that matters is that his team leaves Carolina with a win.
“I’m not really that concerned about next week or the week after,” said Belichick. “Right now it’s just Carolina. We’ll deal with the schedule when we know what it is.”