It’s not every week one of the most revered quarterbacks of all time comes to your city to play under the lights in the biggest game of the week, but that’s what the Carolina Panthers face in New England quarterback Tom Brady.
The three-time Super Bowl winner has two MVP awards, owns numerous NFL passing records and is a staple in nearly every all-time quarterbacks list.
This week, the Panthers have been under no illusions about the difficult task they face Monday night at Bank of America Stadium.
“You’ve got your hands full as soon as you hear (his name),” Panthers free safety Mike Mitchell said. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.”
For the Panthers, he also represents an opportunity.
“It’s one of those things where a guy like myself, you know that this is your opportunity,” Mitchell said. “God is blessing you to make your name, make your legacy against players like this.
“On one hand you have the utmost respect, but on the other you look forward to seeing what you’re made of.”
Mitchell and the Carolina defense are the only unit in the NFL that ranks in the top five in total defense, rush defense and pass defense. The Panthers were tested a week ago by San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, holding San Francisco to its fewest yards (151) since 2006 in a 10-9 victory.
But Brady is a different animal, a fact the Panthers acknowledge.
A 14-year veteran, Brady has dealt with dropped balls by a young receiving corps this season. His top target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, has missed six games.
But he still has an acute ability to manipulate defenses, an impressive record in the month of November and a penchant for having his play match the magnitude of the game.
“When you’re in a game like this, you got to be aware of dominant players,” Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said. “He’s dominant, but he’s still a player.
“He’s still a quarterback, but you got to know what he can do and you’ve got to give the man respect before you can take him down.”
A ‘Monday Night’ vet
Monday will mark Brady’s 18th ‘Monday Night Football’ contest as the starting quarterback for the Patriots. He is 13-4 in his previous 17 appearances.
“Monday Night Football, we don’t have many of those,” Brady told New England reporters this week. “This is our only one this year. It will be a fun night. It will be a great atmosphere down there for football. They’re going to be fired up, we’re fired up.
“That’s the way it should be, it’s football in November.”
And November is Brady’s month. Since he became the starter in 2001, Brady is 34-10 (.772) in November, with four career undefeated Novembers.
Adding to his legend, Brady has the fourth-most touchdown passes in Monday Night Football history with 41. Only Dan Marino (74), Brett Favre (69) and Steve Young (42) have more, and Brady’s average of 2.4 touchdowns per MNF appearance bests Marino’s 1.9.
“He works so hard and he’s such a competitor,” Gronkowski said. “When the lights are shining, that’s when the guys that work hard, put the extra work in, always shine. And that’s Tom.”
But Bill Belichick, the only NFL coach Brady has played for, said history doesn’t have any bearing on Monday night’s contest between the Panthers (6-3) and Patriots (7-2).
“We’ll see what happens,” Belichick said. “Whatever has or hasn’t happened in the past, I don’t think that really has much meaning for this game.
“It will all just come down to how well all of us collectively as a team can do Monday night in Carolina. It’s a huge, huge challenge playing the Panthers down there.”
It didn’t take long for Mitchell to say what makes Brady so special on the field.
“He gets in and out of no-huddle,” the Panthers free safety said. “They have two different versions of it. A fast one, a really fast one, and then kind of like a muddle huddle, Peyton Manning type. The way he gets out of both of those within the drive is impressive to see.”
Casual fans are familiar with a no-huddle offense. But the muddle huddle is slightly different, and Brady is a master of both.
The muddle huddle brings the team to the line of scrimmage without huddling, and the center is over the ball as soon as it’s placed by the official. But the snap isn’t instantaneous. Brady will survey the defense for several seconds, sometimes late into the play clock, while calling out the play at the line.
“He’s sharp, he understands, he knows how they want to attack you,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “So based on that, if you show your coverage way too soon or your pressure way too soon, he has enough time to check and audible and put them in a better offense. You have to be very patient but at the same time you have to be prepared to play.”
That can be a difficult thing.
“I think Tom Brady is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in this league that you have to face because he does a great job of keeping defenses off balance,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “They come in and they go no-huddle or muddle huddle or they completely slow the tempo down so you never know what tempo to expect. They keep you on your toes.
“We understand that and we know that so we definitely have to prepare for it so that’s just another dimension that he adds on top of being extremely accurate and extremely intelligent.”
Kuechly is key
How the Panthers can beat Brady and the Patriots starts with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
In defending up-tempo offenses, it’s up to the quarterback of the defense to get the call and disseminate the message to the other 10 defenders.
Working in Carolina’s favor will be the home crowd. A raucous environment could change how the Patriots operate.
“Definitely coming in this Monday night game into Carolina Panthers stadium we know that’s going to be loud, that’s going to be hectic, that’s going to be crazy,” Gronkowski said. “It’s just like any road game. You’ve got to have great communication throughout the team, throughout the offense.
“A lot of nonverbal communication goes on when you’re on the road, and we’ve got to be sound and we’ve got to be good with that.”
The Panthers have seen up-tempo offenses this season. In the preseason, Chip Kelly’s Eagles ran a no-huddle offense on 20 out of their 35 first-half snaps, including 10 consecutive no-huddles on one drive. And though the halftime score was 14-6 in favor of Philadelphia, the Panthers did create three turnovers.
The Panthers’ preparation for the Patriots included a drill called the “Panther Period.” Rivera puts the first-team offense against the first-team defense and has the offense run a no-huddle in an exercise designed to benefit both sides of the ball.
“Now, trying to do it and simulate what they’re running at the same time in terms of their run plays and pass plays, that’s the hard part,” Rivera said. “And I know coach Belichick knows that I know that’s part of the reason they do what they do.”
As Brady goes, so goes New England’s offense. This season has had its share of bumps, with Brady, 36, holding career-lows in completion percentage (56.6) and yards per attempt (6.2).
But he has his Patriots in control of their playoff hopes, and he’s looking to make his 11th postseason appearance since 2001.
As the weather cools and the lights come on, few in history have shown they’re as good as Brady.
“It’s fun now with Thursday Night Football and there’s Sunday Night Football, but Monday Night Football is always pretty cool, especially when you play a really good team,” Brady told reporters this week. “It’s a fun night. It’s November, you feel the weather is changing out there. This is when the most important games are.
“You want to be playing in the biggest moments.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9