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Panthers gameday story lines

New England's Dynamic Duo

The Patriots' receiving duo of RANDY MOSS and WES WELKER is truly a one-two punch, ranking first and second in the NFL in receiving yards (Moss, 1,058; Welker, 1,053). Welker also leads the league with 85 catches, despite missing two games with an injury. Add quarterback TOM BRADY to that mix and it is one of the biggest defensive challenges the Panthers will face. But they have already played well against at least one elite quarterback - intercepting Arizona's KURT WARNER five times in a 34-21 victory.

Defensive lineup remains in flux

There is the potential for even more defensive turnover for the Panthers today. If either end TYLER BRAYTON (concussion) or linebacker NA'IL DIGGS (ribs) does not play, Carolina would put its 13th different starting lineup on the field in 13 games this season.

Dominant in December

The Panthers and Patriots usually play their best in December. New England's 24-3 record since 2003 is the best in the NFL and the Panthers' 18-9 mark is tied for fifth with Pittsburgh. Both teams need those kind of efforts this month: New England is in a battle for the AFC East lead with Miami and the New York Jets, and finishes with Buffalo, Jacksonville and Houston; the Panthers' already-dim playoff hopes hinge on a difficult final stretch that also includes Minnesota, the New York Giants and New Orleans.

League-high 31 giveaways overshadow efforts of defense

Much has been made of quarterback JAKE DELHOMME'S 18 interceptions. And the Panthers' 31 turnovers are the most in the league. Imagine how things might have been different if the Panthers' offense had been able to hold those numbers down some. Carolina's opportunistic defense has forced 25 turnovers, tied for fourth most in the league.

Patriots dealing with issues

This has been a week of distractions for the Patriots, who have lost three of four. First, TOM BRADY'S wife, GISELE BUNDCHEN, gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday. Brady then missed some practices because of injuries to a finger, shoulder and rib. Then coach BILL BELICHICK sent four players (including receiver RANDY MOSS) home Wednesday for being late for an 8.a.m. meeting, which didn't sit well with another one of them, linebacker ADALIUS THOMAS. The Patriots seem to be a bit off course.

David Scott's Panthers list:

It has been six seasons since the Panthers and Patriots played in a game with a bit more at stake than the one they've got today: Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. Here are five things you might not know or have forgotten about the Patriots' 32-29 victory:

1. DESHAUN FOSTER'S 33-yard touchdown run for the Panthers was the fourth-longest run in Super Bowl history at the time.

2. Four key points lost: The Panthers failed to convert two two-point conversions - one when they had cut the Patriots' lead to 21-16 early in the fourth quarter, the other midway through the final quarter when they had gone ahead 22-21 on an 85-yard scoring pass from JAKE DELHOMME to MUHSIN MUHAMMAD.

3. The game featured two turnovers, but they were both important - a fumble by Delhomme, which led to New England's first touchdown; and an interception of Patriots quarterback TOM BRADY in the fourth quarter by REGGIE HOWARD, shortly followed by the Delhomme-Muhammad touchdown.

4. The Patriots, in the midst of a three-championships-in-four-seasons run, were seven-point favorites.

5. About halftime ... Remember the wardrobe malfunction?

Panthers:

0 Regular-season games Panthers have played in New England's Gillette Stadium prior to today (only team in NFL never to have played there).

3-1 Quarterback Matt Moore's record as a starter.

11 Tackles needed by linebacker Jon Beason to tie for third on the franchise's career list.

Patriots:

24 Playoff games since 1994, most in the NFL.

30 Career 300-yard passing games by Tom Brady, a team record.

74.3 Winning percentage since 2001 under coach Bill Belichick, best of any major American sports team in that span.

What we've got today is a game that sounded awesome in April and is something of a downer in December. The New England Patriots of 2009 are not the Patriots we have gotten used to seeing, and the Carolina Panthers of 2009 are nowhere close to the Panthers of 2008. Nevertheless, it is the Patriots, and it certainly sounds like TOM BRADY is playing, and MATT MOORE gets a chance against a vulnerable New England secondary. It will be interesting. Moore needs to throw for at least 200-250 yards today, I think, for Carolina to have any chance at winning. The way to beat New England is to attack its back four, not its front seven. As promised in this space, the last time I was going to pick the Panthers to win in 2009 occurred last Sunday, when with reluctance I chose Carolina to beat the Bucs. With little reluctance, today my pick is:

NEW ENGLAND 26, CAROLINA 17

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