FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 18: Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots celebrates with Tom Brady #12 against the Indianapolis Colts into the end zone for a touchdown in the first half at Gillette Stadium on November 18, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The Patriots went into their bye with a 7-2 record and a two-game lead over the Jets in the division. New York promptly went to Buffalo and got blown out and now New England has a 2.5 game lead on the Jets and the Bills. Translation: A lot has to go wrong between now and the end of the season for the Pats to not assume their annual spot as AFC East champs and playoff participants.
But just how good is this team?
Monday night could go a long way in determining just how long this team will play into January and beyond. The Pats travel to Charlotte to face an upstart Panthers team that is 6-3 after a 1-3 start.
And while Rob Gronkowski appears to be rounding into form, New England will be without cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Steve Gregory, which had a lot to do with speculation that the team would make a run at Ed Reed (who eventually signed with the Jets).
But quarterback Tom Brady knows that whomever is healthy and available (or not), the bottom line is execution.
“We have to play really well,” Brady said, via the Boston Globe. “I think our execution has to be at its best. It’ll be fun. It’s Monday night. It’s getting later in the year. These games are more and more important. We’ll see what we can do.”
And unlike year's past, this Panthers defense is stout, especially its front seven. This fact has not been lost on Brady.
“They have different strengths than the other teams that we’ve faced,” he continued. “They have a very good team. They rush the quarterback. That tandem that they had last year is the same group they have this year that led the league in sacks from those two positions: [Greg] Hardy and [Charles] Johnson, and then [Mario] Addison is a great rusher.
“They have a great front. They rotate all these guys in. They can all rush the quarterback and they’ve got linebackers that can tackle. [2nd-year linebacker Luke] Kuechly is a great young player and makes tackles everywhere. If you miss a throw, it’s usually an interception.
“You just have to know the challenge, know what it takes, 60 minutes of great football. You’re not just going to go in there and put together 30 good minutes and think you’re going to win. We have to play well all night.”
A loss for the Patriots won't mean much in the scheme of things; they're still the favorites to win the division, but it's not in Brady's nature to easy off the gas pedal just because the stakes are relatively low.