(TSX / STATS) — FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Having spent last Sunday afternoon chasing rookie Deshaun Watson all over the Gillette Stadium turf, the New England Patriots should be better prepared for Cam Newton when they see the former MVP and his visiting Carolina Panthers this Sunday.
Newton is bigger, stronger and more experienced than Watson, whose legs and right arm forced New England to rally late for a dramatic 36-33 victory over the Houston Texans.
“I think both guys probably have a few plays that are designed runs, and then there are other plays that are improvised runs,” New England coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “I think when you’re talking about mobile quarterbacks, guys that are tough to handle, tackle, can throw, run, make good decisions — I mean, I would put Newton at the top of the list.
“Not saying that there aren’t a lot of other good players that do that, but I would say, of all the guys we play or have played recently in the last couple of years, I would definitely put him — he’s the hardest guy to deal with. He makes good decisions, he can run, he’s strong, he’s hard to tackle. He can do a lot of different things, beat you in a lot of different ways.
“We saw that in the game down there in ’13, so I would put him at the top of the list. Not saying the other guys aren’t a problem, because they are, but he’s public enemy No. 1.”
The Panthers, who are playing without tight end Greg Olson, out with a broken foot, opened with two victories and were then clubbed by the New Orleans Saints last Sunday at home. They received some good news when wideout Kelvin Benjamin practiced fully Thursday and is expected to play after exiting last week’s game with a knee injury.
The Patriots opened with a Thursday night, banner-celebration loss to Kansas City but have won two straight — with Tom Brady named AFC offensive player of the week after each win. He threw for five touchdowns against Houston, including the winner (and a subsequent 2-point conversion) with 23 seconds left.
A new Sunday, of course, brings a second week of potential protests aimed at what President Donald Trump said last week. The Panthers’ Julius Peppers was the only Carolina player to demonstrate.
“It was about me making a decision as a man on my two feet, and I wasn’t going to ask somebody else to do anything with me,” said Peppers, who remained in the locker room during the national anthem as his teammates stood on the sideline, right hands over their hearts.
Team captains — and Peppers — met with owner Jerry Richardson at his home Tuesday.
“We didn’t do much as a team. I think a lot of people were disappointed in that,” Captain Munnerlyn said. “I think we wanted to do more, but we didn’t know how it would come down this being North Carolina, this being a military state. At the same time, I think a lot of people were scared on our team.”
The 81-year-old Richardson, the only NFL owner who played in the league, issued a statement Monday — the Panthers being the last team to comment — that read:
“We are proud of the men we have on this football team. Our players have been active and impactful participants in making our community stronger. From the first time I stepped into an NFL locker room at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in 1959, I have lived and seen the sport’s ability to bring people of all backgrounds together. Politicizing the game is damaging and takes the focus off the greatness of the game itself and those who play it.”
Said Munnerlyn: “That’s my owner. That’s my boss.”
Belichick, asked Wednesday if he would write a letter to the president if asked to do so by his players, issued a standard Belichick comment by saying, “Yeah, right now my thoughts are about getting ready for Carolina.”
Newton, speaking Wednesday, wouldn’t reveal what he might have in mind for Sunday but said, “The time is upon us to do something to bring people closer together.
“By no means do we want to offend anybody. Nobody who has protested meant for it to be disrespectful to the United States flag.”
Munnerlyn, who signed a four-year, $17.5 million deal, was unhappy to have played only 11 snaps last week, saying, “I didn’t come here for that. And I told them that. I expressed my feelings. I want to play. That’s what I’m here for.”
Munnerlyn, signed as a nickel back, lost playing time to a defense geared toward stopping the run. He could see more time Sunday with cornerback Daryl Worley dealing with a shoulder injury. He was one of seven Panthers listed under “did not participate” in Wednesday’s first injury report for the week, which included Newton listed as “limited” because of his right shoulder.
Rex Burkhead (ribs) was the only Patriot not to practice. Defensive leader Dont’a Hightower, who missed the last two games with a knee injury, returned to limited work. Seven other Patriots, including wide receiver Danny Amendola (knee), were “limited.”
Two years ago, the Panthers’ win over New England ended with Luke Kuechly getting the call on tight coverage on Rob Gronkowski at the end of the game. A pass-interference flag was thrown and picked up, and Brady wound up chasing the referee off the field.
Wednesday, Kuechly, speaking on a conference call with the New England media, admitted “I might have got away with one there. I’m not even going to act like I didn’t. I might have got away with one.”
Asked about it, Brady said, “Oh man, let’s replay that one, too, and see what happens. I wish we could do that. Yeah, that was a tough game.
“I think that speaks a lot to their team, that particular game. It was a hard-nosed, hard-fought game. We had to earn every yard and it came down to the end. It comes down to a couple of plays just like last week.”