GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Dick Enberg, Dan Dierdorf, Armen Keteyian
SERIES: 4th meeting. Patriots lead 2-1. Carolina beat the Patriots back in 1995 in their inaugural season while losing 38-6 to New England in the final game of the 2001 season. The teams also met in Super Bowl XXXVIII with New England winning 32-29. New England is 13-4 in its last 17 road games including the postseason. *2005 rankings: Patriots: offense 8th (24th rush, 4th pass); defense 19th (13th rush, 22nd pass). Panthers: offense 11th (9th rush, 17th pass); defense 9th (18th rush, 11th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers defense emphasized getting off the field on third downs over the offseason, then allowed New Orleans to convert eight of 13 third-down situations last Sunday. Now they must improve that number without injured DT Kris Jenkins. Patriots QB Tom Brady utilizes a lot of three-step drops, so the Panthers need their corners to stick to their men and create a few turnovers. New England's defense appeared vulnerable against Oakland, especially up the middle with new ILBs Chad Brown and Monty Beisel. The Patriots will alternate between the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, but regardless the Panthers will attempt to run the ball early. New England will provide over the top help on WR Steve Smith, so the Panthers need Keary Colbert to make them pay on the other side of the field.
FAST FACTS: First meeting since the Patriots' 32-29 victory in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Patriots: Coach Bill Belichick has 100 career victories. ... Belichick and QB Tom Brady have combined for .778 winning percentage (49-14), the highest in the NFL since 1970. Panthers: QB Jake Delhomme has a 98.6 passer rating over his past nine games. ... DE Mike Rucker needs two sacks to pass Kevin Greene (41.5) as the team's all-time leader.
--DL Richard Seymour was dressed for the Patriots practice, wearing the shell-like shoulder pads, but did not participate fully in the workout.
--DL Jarvis Green shed his red no-contact jersey for Thursday's practice, but remains questionable with a shoulder injury. The team did not have a full-contact practice Thursday while escaping the rain in its indoor facility.
--WR Bethel Johnson was also dressed for practice, but missed some portion of team work and remains questionable with a thigh injury.
--CB Tyrone Poole was not present at the portion of Thursday's practice open to the media. He remains questionable with an ankle injury.
--WR Andre' Davis was not present at the portion of Thursday's practice open to the media. He remains questionable with a foot injury.
--CB Chad Scott was not present at the portion of Thursday's practice open to the media. He remains questionable with a shoulder injury.
--LB Tully Banta-Cain was not present at the portion of Thursday's practice open to the media. He remains questionable with a knee injury.
--S James Sanders was not present at the portion of Thursday's practice open to the media. He remains questionable with an ankle injury.
--S Rodney Harrison was asked by the Carolina media about Bill Belichick's coaching philosophy and what makes it work, and while he didn't take offense to the question, he did make sure to divvy up the credit pie.
"You have to look at the players we have," Harrison said. "You can coach and you can scheme, but the players make all of that work. We have veteran players and a lot of teams nowadays do not believe in veteran players. They believe in youth and so-called speed. (Coach Belichick) believes in bringing smart, disciplined football players in that respect the game and have the ability to be able to move on whether we win or lose and learn and make others better."
--WR Deion Branch, who is certainly the Patriots' No. 1 receiver in an offense that spreads the ball around relatively evenly, said his role is determined by the game. "It fluctuates," he said when asked if he was treated as a No. 1 by opposing defenses. "It's according to the flow of the game. The coaches can put me in a situation that makes them treat me like a No. 1. The coaches know what they're doing. I may be the third read on a play, but they draw it up to make the defense think I'm No. 1. It's amazing what goes on in the meeting room."
--QB Tom Brady has won three Super Bowls but has never put up gaudy passing stats, which has led to debates about his ability and ranking among NFL quarterbacks. Carolina safety Mike Minter puts him atop any list of NFL QBs. "Tom Brady is definitely the best quarterback in the league right now," Minter said. "What he does to defenses is pretty amazing. These guys don't make mistakes. I'll take Tom Brady any day over anybody. He's in a class of his own."
--CB Ricky Manning Jr. could be one of the keys to Sunday's game. If Manning can defend the slot well, the Panthers may just be able to force Tom Brady into other throws and buy some time for the defensive line to get some pressure on him.
--LB Brandon Short practiced again Thursday and will start against the Patriots.
--SS Thomas Davis will hold on to his starting job this week despite getting benched last week for Marlon McCree.
--WR Rod Gardner said the team has put in some packages for him this week and that he should be active against New England.
--RB DeShaun Foster could see more action this week after carrying nine times last week. His style of play might fare better against New England's defense than power back Stephen Davis.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:Patriots:
Much is being made of this 4-3, 3-4 thing the Patriots have going. Too much, apparently. It was born out of last Thursday's season opener, when the Patriots struggled early defensively against the Raiders from their base 3-4 front, but then improved dramatically when the switch to a 4-3 was made.
The switch involved replacing inside linebacker Chad Brown with defensive lineman Jarvis Green. But beyond the personnel change and the redistribution of responsibilities, not much else changed.
The Patriots' outside linebackers, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest, remained on the ends of the line of scrimmage, where they play in a 3-4, and defensive lineman Richard Seymour explained that the front seven still plays its two-gap responsibilities with the linemen playing head-up on their offensive line counterparts. For Seymour, that's a guard instead of a tackle.
The difference for him comes on pass plays, when he sees fewer double-team blocks. Generally, the pass protection must identify the fourth rusher because he usually comes from a linebacker spot. So that might be the biggest difference in the two fronts the Pats employ.
Vrabel, for one, thinks it's much ado about nothing. "You should know how much we change defenses around here," he said. "We change defenses at the drop of a hat. We've never had to answer this many questions before when Ted Johnson went out and we went to a 4-3 and then back to the 3-4 when he came back in. I don't know where there is an issue this year. We'll continue to play multiple defenses and go from there."
The difference this year, though, is that Ted Johnson, who was a proven run-stopper in the middle, and the playmaking Tedy Bruschi are no longer in the picture. So when a struggling group swaps out Brown for Green and the performance improves, one is left to wonder if the switch was not as much a choice as a necessity. It's certainly too early to rate Brown's overall play, but it does bear watching.
So while the switch to a 4-3 may not be a big deal on the whole in terms of the defensive principles played, it might be an indictment of Brown's play or the play of the interior defense when in a 3-4. That's why it's an issue thus far.
There's no doubt Rod Gardner is a better wide receiver than Karl Hankton, but don't expect Gardner to take Hankton's jersey come game day.
"As long as Karl is healthy, he's going to be on the field," Panthers head coach John Fox said emphatically on Thursday.
The Panthers love Hankton's ability to play all four key units on special teams. He's a four-time special teams captain and his 62 career special teams tackles stands as a franchise record.
So if Gardner is going to be active - and it looks like there's a good chance he will be this week against New England - his spot is going to have to come of the expense of someone else on the 53-man roster.
What Jake Delhomme is to Carolina's offense and Julius Peppers is to the defense, Fox believes Hankton is to the special teams. And considering the Panthers place just as much emphasis on special teams as they do offense and defense, they consider Hankton vital piece of the overall puzzle on game day.
Earlier this year, Hankton was voted special teams captain by his peers for a team-record fourth straight year. And while you may not always see Hankton make the big play on special teams, he is the glue that holds those units together.
"He just happens to play wideout, but he's a core special teams player," Fox said. "He's on kickoff coverage. He's on kickoff return. He's on punt team. He's on punt return. That's a whole other team that plays every week. You've got 11 guys out there all the time, and you can't have a bunch of munchkins out there.
"New England has some core special teams guys. Every team does. That's what makes the special teams units. Most teams that get it have those kind of guys."
Carolina's other "core guys" on special teams include running back Nick Goings, defensive end Kemp Rasmussen, cornerback Dante Wesley and linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, along with the obvious players like long snapper Jason Kyle, kicker John Kasay, and punter Jason Baker.
"There's a reason he's our captain," said safety Mike Minter, who ranks second in team history in special teams tackles, one behind Hankton. "You have to have guys like him. He makes plays for us all over the field.
"Sometimes it's something as simple as a block that frees up another guy. He's in some critical phases of the special teams and he's in the critical positions on those special teams units, too. You definitely have to have him out there because he is a special player for us."
That, said Minter, is something a lot of fans don't understand - and neither did he until he came into the league back in 1997.
"Fans don't understand special teams and they don't understand how important this is to winning a ballgame in this league," Minter said. "You've got to have it. When I was in college at Nebraska we were like, 'Oh special teams, that's for the scrubs.' But as I got into the National Football League, that stuff suddenly became very serious. And that's why you have guys like Karl Hankton."