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5 Things to Watch: Quarterback questions abound

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CHARLOTTE — The Panthers are 4-4, with uncertainty at quarterback.

The Patriots are 4-4, with a rookie quarterback.

So it's reasonable to assume that if the two coaches have their way, it won't come down to the quarterbacks at all.

Patriots passer Mac Jones has thrown a lot of passes (282, fourth-most in the league) and is completing them at a high rate (68.1). He's still a rookie, but he's a high-floor rookie. The Panthers got a glimpse of that when they coached him at the Senior Bowl last February, and they liked his grasp of the offense and his leadership traits.

Now, they have to figure out how to defend him.

This stands to be an interesting game full of subplots for a pair of teams that got to .500 in different ways (the Panthers won three, lost four, and won one, while the Patriots started 1-3). So here are five things to keep an eye on:

QUARTERBACK QUESTIONS

Suffice it to say, no matter what ends up happening at quarterback Sunday, it hasn't been an ideal situation this week for the Panthers.

With Sam Darnold's status up in the air until he meets with the independent neurologist to see if he clears the concussion protocol, they don't know at the moment whether they'll have Darnold or P.J. Walker start, or whether Darnold will back up, or whether practice squader James Morgan will be elevated to the game-day roster.

And no matter what, none of them will have gotten a full week's worth of reps going into a game against Bill Belichick, as Darnold got limited practice throughout the week (which means Walker didn't get them all in either).

Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady said earlier this week the lack of practice reps wouldn't be an overwhelming factor, referencing their short-week game at Houston earlier this season, when they didn't get much real work done on the field during the week.

"We really didn't get to practice for that game," Brady said when asked about Darnold's ability to play without a full week of practice. "Sometimes it's mental reps; sometimes it's us just painting the picture on video.

"If he's out there, I'll feel confident with him out there."

Brady said there are adjustments in the game plan depending on the quarterback, but they aren't so vast that they can't get good work done during the week. The night before the game, they meet with the quarterbacks to talk about which plays they feel best about, and can refine based on who has to play. As they learned last week in Atlanta, that can happen in an instant.

"Sometimes it happens quickly, and you're in the red zone and you have to figure it out from there," Brady said. "When you go into it, there are adjustments you make...

"When P.J. went in there the first play I called was a speed option. Go back to Atlanta last year; first play was him taking a shot on the go route. It's not one of those things where it's like you're scratching trying to find plays. There's a reason he's here."

LET'S GET PHYSICAL

Even with opening week starter Pat Elflein back on the active roster, the Panthers are expected to stick with Michael Jordan and Trent Scott at guard.

They were the interior starters last week against the Falcons, when the Panthers ran 47 times for 203 yards. Jordan, in particular, has earned high marks for his physical nature, and as they try to establish a running game, that helps.

This week, 6-foot-5, 315-pound left tackle Cameron Erving said he's been impressed by the 6-6, 315-pound Jordan.

"Both those guys came out and played physical. Those are things you can't coach," Erving said. "Mike has people flying around sometimes. I'm a big human myself, and I look at him move guys and I'm like, 'Man, whew.' You just shake your head.

"Trent as well did his thing and was effective and played with an edge. That's what we have to continue to do as an offensive line, as a whole team. To come out and have success week by week."

SPREAD IT AROUND

They haven't activated running back Christian McCaffrey yet, and Rhule said whenever they do (either by Sunday or in the future), it wouldn't be a full workload at first.

"I don't think it would be one of those 50, 60, 70-play games," Rhule said of a hypothetical return for McCaffrey.

With the way Chuba Hubbard and Ameer Abdullah played lately, it makes sense to spread the ball around. Add McCaffrey to the mix, and you have at least two strong runners, and at least two accomplished pass-catchers among the group.

Before they get there, however, McCaffrey has to be on the active roster. They have a couple of spots open, so there's room if he's ready.

NOT IN A HURRY

New Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore is still working his way back from last December's quad injury, so he's not up to a full workload of reps in a game or full speed.

He only played 17 snaps against the Falcons (the team only had 50), but he made them count, with a game-clinching interception.

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow remarked with some degree of surprise that while the fastest runners in the NFL reach 20 or 21 mph during a game, Gilmore's not blazing around yet, saying: "I don't think he reached 15."

"It's because he does such a real good job with his feet and hands, playing bump-and-run in man-to-man," Snow said. "He makes the game really simple. It's not taxing to him because he's so good at what he does physically. Really fun to watch, and that's why he's been an All-Pro."

There's something to be said for running all over the place, as opposed to knowing exactly where to be and when.

SACK MASTERS

Two of the league's top pass-rushers will be on display Sunday, and two of the league's best defenses in general.

Matt Judon of the Patriots is fourth in the league with 8.0 sacks in eight games, while Panthers outside linebacker Haason Reddick is just behind him with 7.5.

And the way these two teams play defense (the Panthers are fifth in the league in scoring defense at 19.9 points per game, the Patriots are eighth at 20.5), you should be able to get a sense of how the game's going early.

In the four games the Panthers have won, they've allowed 14 points or fewer. In their four losses, they've allowed 21 or more. The Panthers are also allowing more than twice as many yards in their losses (394.8 yards per game) as in their wins (196.5 yards per game).

So if one team starts lighting it up, it will be noticeable. And surprising.

BONUS GAMEDAY RECIPE

Make Harris Teeter your choice for pre- and post-game tailgate celebrations! Enjoy this recipe from Harris Teeter & Nutter Butter – Nutter Butter Cookie Bars

Carolina is 4-3 all-time against the Patriots. The teams faced off in Super Bowl XXXVIII at the end of the 2003 season.

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