Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry was in third grade when Tom Brady and the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, in 2001.
Adam Vinatieri’s last-second field goal lifted the Patriots over the St. Louis Rams, who were Bradberry’s favorite team after he’d latched on to the “Greatest Show on Turf” playmakers on the “NFL Blitz” video game.
Bradberry took the Rams’ Super Bowl loss hard.
“I didn’t like Tom Brady. Didn’t like Adam Viniateri. Didn’t like Bill Belichick,” Bradberry said. “Didn’t like none of them.”
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Sixteen years later, Viniateri is still kicking for the Colts at 45 and Brady and Belichick are still winning Super Bowls in New England.
And the Patriots are still the standard for NFL success.
“They’ve proven over a long period of time that they can do it and sustain it for a long time. We just have to develop that as a football team,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “That’s one of the things that we’re working on, being a more consistent bunch. Being able to show up week in and week out and put out some playoff-caliber football.”
For now the Panthers would just settle for a victory – and a few touchdowns.
The Panthers (2-1) head to Foxborough on the heels of a demoralizing 34-13 loss to New Orleans that exposed Carolina’s top-ranked defense with a slew of big plays by Drew Brees and Co.
It doesn’t help that the Panthers are catching Brady in the midst of a historic stretch.
But the biggest issue for the Panthers continues to be the play of quarterback Cam Newton and the state of his surgically repaired throwing shoulder.
New England (2-1) is a nine-point favorite vs. Carolina, but the Patriots have looked vulnerable with the NFL’s worst defense.
A blueprint for the how the Panthers could pull the upset:
Get a transcendent performance from Christian McCaffrey
When the Chiefs spanked New England 42-27 in the NFL’s kickoff game, rookie running back Kareem Hunt put on a remarkable show. Hunt racked up 148 yards and one touchdown on the ground and added 98 receiving yards and two more scores.
The Panthers don’t need anyone to match that, but they do need a big game from one of their playmakers. There aren’t many healthy ones left, so it falls on McCaffrey to seize the moment.
The first-round pick from Stanford is still looking for his first TD, but notched his first big play last week on a 37-yard wheel route against the Saints.
Belichick this week praised the way Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has used McCaffrey in a variety of looks, including misdirection.
“He’s a difficult guy to deal with,” Belichick said. “Especially in combination with (Jonathan) Stewart, Cam Newton and all the rest of those guys.”
Take some shots deep
This one’s a little more difficult because it depends on the strength of Newton’s right shoulder.
The Panthers face the league’s worst-ranked defense for the second week in a row. They weren’t able to take advantage of the Saints’ porous D, in part because Newton’s timing was off and he couldn’t connect with Devin Funchess on a pair of deep throws when Funchess had separation.
Newton was limited at practice for the second week in a row, although Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Newton threw more than he did leading to the Saints’ game.
Shula has been dialing up quicker-hitting plays to protect Newton. But the Patriots lack a difference-making edge rusher, so Shula has to give Newton chances to throw deep against a Patriots’ defense ranked last in total yards allowed (461), passing yards (330.7) and points (31.7).
Newton had a huge game when the Panthers beat New England in 2013, but that was four years and two surgeries ago. Left tackle Matt Kalil has to do a better job protecting Newton, who remains a dynamic player in Belichick’s view.
“He can do pretty much everything he needs to do,” Belichick said. “He’s got a great arm, great vision on those loose plays in the pocket. But he’s a very good pocket passer and a very good guy at reading coverages and getting the ball to open receivers.”
Take the ball away
Brady is playing some of his best football at 40.
In back-to-back wins vs. New Orleans and Houston, Brady passed for more than 375 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in each game. That’s only been done in consecutive games three times in NFL history, and Brady is responsible for two of them.
The Panthers should be able to get to Brady for a few sacks, but they’re not going to rattle him. He’s yet to throw an interception in 110 pass attempts, and his fumble last week vs. Houston was the Patriots’ lone turnover of the season.
But given the way the Panthers offense has struggled to finish drives, Steve Wilks’ defense has to find a way to create takeaways.
Brady will test the Carolina corners on the outside, and likely will have success there. But as often as he likes to throw underneath to running back James White and down the seam to tight end Rob Gronkowski, there should be opportunities for the Panthers’ linebackers to make plays.
Luke Kuechly, who dropped an interception last week vs. Brees, said it’s imperative the Panthers stop the run to get Brady in some obvious passing situations.
“When you play offenses that are dangerous, you’ve got to try to get the ball back to our offense,” Kuechly said. “If they can run the ball, then he’s going to be play-action and all that stuff. You’ve got to try to make them as one-dimensional as possible and against these guys it’s difficult.”
The Panthers only see the Patriots during the regular season once every four years, so it’s possible this could be the last time they get a shot at Brady.
“He hasn’t lost a single step,” Davis said. “He hasn’t lost any arm strength. He hasn’t lost his knowledge of the game. He’s going out and he’s still performing at a high level.”
And while it may be lost on at least one of his younger teammates, Davis appreciates the significance of facing Brady, Belichick and a franchise with five Lombardi trophies.
“We understand that we have huge stakes this weekend,” he said. “It’s not an end-all for us, by no means. But it’s definitely a game we feel we have to win.”
Panthers at Patriots
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. (FOX)