Lots of love for the Panthers from a former Pat.
Mike: The linebackers look tough, and of course, we're familiar with the man in the middle, Kuechly, from his time at Boston College.
Tedy: I really think he is one of the elite linebackers in the league, possibly the best. I know there are good ones this year, you see them on film, like NaVorro Bowman (49ers) and Derrick Johnson (Chiefs), and Kuechly is right there. I've been very impressed this year by his diagnosis skills, the way he's able to read the offenses and figure out the answers to the test before the ball is snapped. He'll see a short motion and his football education tells him what the possibilities are from that short motion, and he figures it out as soon as the ball is snapped. He's not really a linebacker you can deceive because of his sharp diagnosis skills, his football intelligence, the way he processes information. It's that linebacker football equation:
Mike: Rivera compared his smarts to another great linebacker he once coached, Brian Urlacher. In 21 career games at middle linebacker, Kuechly is averaging 12.5 tackles per game. He teams with Thomas Davis for an excellent one-two punch at linebacker.
Tedy: I'm fired up for Davis for what he's able to do this year. The play he made last Sunday against the 49ers -- putting a big hit on running back Kendall Hunter and forcing a fumble -- when you think about what he's been through with the three knee surgeries in three years, this guy probably should've been Comeback Player of the Year last year. He's continued to work, setback after setback after setback, and now he's playing on one of the best defenses in the league and is one of the main reasons the defense is so good. Not only can Davis make plays in the box, as he did on Hunter, but he is a very good cover linebacker. I've seen Davis do good things in coverage and I've seen Kuechly run down the field and cover tight ends, matching up one-on-one against Tony Gonzalez. So which linebacker will draw the assignment to cover Rob Gronkowski? That will be interesting to watch. Or do they try to use a safety or various combo-coverage concepts?
Tedy: They have the best backfield in the NFL. I say backfield because it's a full house withDeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and also Cam Newton. Every one of these players has the ability to do a multitude of things. Tolbert, for example, has done everything from catch screen passes to shovel passes to direct runs. He is a wild card in the sense that he's used in a lot of different ways. He might be listed as a fullback, but you could just as easily list him as an "OW" -- offensive weapon. He also had a big hit last week when he knocked out 49ers safetyEric Reid in one of the biggest collisions I've seen all year. He's physical, as is the entire Panthers team, on offense and defense. DeAngelo Williams is a guy who can get outside and get the edge, a very smooth and powerful runner. And Stewart is big, more of a bruiser at 5-foot-10 and 235 pounds. They run the triple option with a full-house backfield (Newton in the pistol, with an inverted wishbone formation surrounding him), and they also run an old-school triple option at you. The Patriots are going to have a lot to focus on when it comes to that run game.
Tedy: Panthers 28, Patriots 27.