Through one month of the 2013 NFL season, head coach Ron Rivera’s job was in apparent jeopardy and critics began questioning what had happened to Cam Newton. As the Carolina Panthers close out Week 11 on "Monday Night Football," they’re one of the favorites to win Super Bowl.
The Panthers enter their game with the New England Patriots at 6-3 with a chance to take sole possession of the first wild card spot in the NFC. They are the hottest team in the league with a five-game winning streak. It isn’t just the fact that they haven’t lost, though, but more about how easy those victories have come. From Week Six to Week Nine, all of the Carolina wins came by at least 15 points. Last Sunday’s game was decided by just one point, but they went into San Francisco and beat the 49ers on the road.
"We're relevant. We're here,” safety Mike Mitchell said after beating the 49ers. "We finally played somebody. We won a tough game on the road. It was a real big win for our team, boosting our confidence and solidifying for ourselves that we are for real."
The contest against San Francisco was proof that the Panthers were not just taking advantage of the league’s weakest teams, but that they are a legitimate contender. Now, they are finally getting the respect of one of the top teams in football. Against the 7-2 Patriots, the Panthers are a three-point favorite. It’s the third time this year that a point spread has had New England listed as underdogs. They are 1-1 in such situations.
Tom Brady knows he and the Patriots will have their work cut out for them. No team has allowed fewer yardage or points per game than the Panthers. They’ve been dominant against the pass, not allowing a 300-yard passer since the opener.
"They're one of the best defenses in the league," Brady said. "We have to play really well. I think our execution has to be at its best."
New England’s offense hasn't been nearly as it as it’s been in years past, but that could be changing as they get healthier. Rob Gronkowski has been active for three weeks, and Danny Amendola will be ready to play his sixth game of the season. In the Patriots last game, Brady had his best performance of the year, falling just shy of a perfect quarterback rating and leading the team to a season-high 55 points.
Newton may not be setting records like he did in his rookie season, but the quarterback has done more than his share to assist the NFL’s best defense. In his third year, he has the best completion percentage and passer rating of his career, and a win would already match the most wins the Panthers have had since he was drafted.
“It’s an extremely big opportunity and that’s out of respect of trying to tone it down as much as possible,” Newton said, according to the Boston Globe. “For us, we need this more than anything. I think the Carolinas need this more than anything."
Player To Watch: Tom Brady
TIME: 8:30 p.m. Monday
PLACE: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC (Grass)
Online Stream: WatchESPN
Updated Betting Odds: Panthers by 3
Prediction: Panthers over Patriots, 20-16