The way the Carolina Panthers see it, playing the New England Patriots this week is a blessing in disguise.
They get to roll out their most in-depth game plan of the preseason against one of the league’s top teams, and it doesn’t even count. They can troubleshoot mistakes that won’t stick to their stat sheets.
Coaches around the league call the third game of the preseason a “dress rehearsal,” because it’s the most complete version of the team shown before the season opener.
Well, this matchup in particular is like going from a third-grade production of “Cats” to the dress rehearsal for “Hamilton.”
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“I think (it’s a blessing in disguise), especially because of who they are,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “First of all, they’re tremendously coached. And they’re a team that is used to winning. They do things the right way. It’ll be a good test for us, and we’ll see exactly where we are and also our approach as a team.
“I hope the players understand that this is the type of team you want to play against. And us as coaches will do the best we can to get everyone ready to roll.”
Running back C.J. Anderson is perhaps among the most excited on the team to see the Patriots in the preseason, because he’s got some history with them.
While at Denver from 2013-2017, Anderson faced off against New England five times, including in the postseason.
“But I’ve never played them in a preseason game,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see Bill and Tom, and some of those guys I’m used to seeing, in a preseason atmosphere. ...They’re going to come to play. ...
“Been playing against them so long that it makes this game plan just a little bit easier for me.”
He’s taken so many snaps against New England that it was light work for him to remember his favorite play against them.
“That’s easy,” he laughed, “2015, it’s snowing, I catch a pitch for 48 yards in overtime, and touchdown. Game over.”
That regular-season contest ultimately set up home-field advantage for the Broncos in the AFC Championship game that postseason, and after that, well...
“And we know the rest,” joked Anderson. “We’re not going to go back too far.”
Carolina began preparing for New England in earnest on Sunday night.
“Obviously what they’ve done speaks for itself,” said Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly after Monday’s practice. “And (head coach Bill) Belichick and (quarterback Tom) Brady are obviously quite the tandem. But it’s a good challenge for us, a fun challenge. They’ll bring some interesting stuff to the table for sure.”
Of course, Kuechly has already set the expectations for the defense.
“Just to play a complete game,” he said. “Last week, we played well in spots. I thought we did a really good job in the red zone. ... We let up a couple of explosive runs. ... That’s an issue for us.
“Other than those two runs, I thought we played pretty well in the run game. But I think this (third) game is something where we can put it all together: Make sure we’re in our gaps, make sure we’re playing the pass soundly. Making sure we do what we need to do to be successful.
“And that’s what this (third) game is, it’s like a tune-up for the regular season.”