The Carolina Panthers believe they're ready for prime time.
They're about to find out.
"This is as big as it gets," said head coach Ron Rivera, whose Panthers will host the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants on NFL Network's Thursday Night Football. "This is the national spotlight. You want to talk about bright lights and big stage? You're playing the defending champs, and you're playing on Thursday night."
The Panthers last played in prime time late in the 2010 season but clearly weren't ready for it, suffering a 27-3 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16.
A rebuilding process began under Rivera soon after, and the Panthers have now reached the stage in that process where their first playoff berth since 2008 appears to be a possibility.
Beating the Giants, who like the Panthers are off to a 1-1 start, certainly would signal that things are heading in the right direction.
"It's going to be a challenge for us and a way to gauge where we are," running back
If the Panthers hope to score an epic victory in front of a national audience, here are some keys to success.
PAINFUL INJURIES: Neither team had a full week to heal its walking wounded, and that obviously could be a major factor in the outcome.
The Giants will be without standout wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, a Charlotte native just named NFC Offensive Player of the Week, as well as leading rusher Amhad Bradshaw and starting right tackle David Diehl. New York will turn its running game over to often-injured journeyman Andre Brown – a former N.C. State player who had a cup of coffee with the Panthers two years ago – and rookie David Wilson out of Virginia Tech.
Rivera said that Panthers running back
THE GAME BEFORE THE GAME: The Panthers and Giants will be the first game of the NFL week, but it will feel like a long wait when the players awaken Thursday.
How the Panthers handle the lead-up to the game could be important.
"It's hard. It's different," Rivera said. "One thing you always try to get your players to do is not play the game before the game and get all worked up. You hope they'll stay in bed, stay rested, put their feet up, take plenty of fluids, look at their playbooks, maybe watch some cartoons or something and then get ready to get focused.
"People talk about how teams that generally do well on prime time games are teams that play in them a lot. We've got to learn and hopefully develop that as we get to play in more."
Since the Panthers played their last primetime game, the Giants have had six such regular season contests, including this year's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
FORMIDABLE FRONT: Through two games, only seven NFL teams have allowed more points than the Giants.
The Panthers know better.
"You can hear the pads popping. Those guys definitely fly around," Williams said. "They have one of the best defensive lines in the league, if not the best, and their linebackers fly around to the ball and the secondary covers. We've definitely got our hands full."
Despite the statistical start to the season, the Giants' front seven ranks among the most feared groups in the NFL. Carolina's offense is a handful as well, especially on a short preparation week.
"We've just got to go out and execute the things we do in practice on the field and score more points than they do," Williams said.
THE OTHER SIDE: The Panthers defense also needs to play to its potential against a well-rounded Giants attack.
"We have to make sure we're fundamentally sound," said Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, whose unit has responded to the challenge to date. "We have run to the football, tackle, get off blocks, and when the opportunities present themselves, we need to catch the football."
The defense has been good thus far, but it's yet to face an offense with the balance and depth that the Giants possess. Against such an attack, playing hard without overplaying is the goal.
"That's what we always go back to – the core fundamentals of playing good, solid team defense," McDermott said.
FINISHING MOVES: Quarterback Eli Manning led the Giants back from a 14-point deficit against Tampa Bay on Sunday with 243 passing yards – in the fourth quarter.
Manning's 510-yard day is the latest proof that when he's at the helm, no game is over.
"He runs the two-minute offense about as well as anybody, and he's got great weapons that he uses very well," Rivera said. "It's a very well-balanced attack, and they've got the right guy to pull the trigger."
The Panthers had some difficulty finishing off games last season but got the job done against a potent New Orleans Saints offense last week. They'd love to face a similar situation Thursday.
WHERE TO WATCH: Thursday's game will be broadcast on NFL Network, but it also can be seen in the Charlotte television market only on ABC affiliate WSOC-TV.
The Charlotte TV market is comprised of the following counties in North Carolina: Alexander, Anson, Ashe, Avery, Burke, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Richmond, Rowan, Stanly, Union and Watauga. In South Carolina, it's comprised of Chester, Chesterfield, Lancaster and York counties.
|Fuel Up To Play 60 Kids Combine||Located on the Panthers' practice field adjacent to Bank of America Stadium and open from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Free, interactive area promotes youth fitness through a variety of football skills and drills for children and their families. Activities include 40-yard dash, vertical jump, wide receiver/quarterback challenge, TopCats dance studio and inflatable obstacle course.|
|Panthers Lair||Located on the corner of Mint Street and Morehead Street and open from 6 to 8 p.m., with TopCats signing autographs and posing for photos at the 107.9 The Link booth from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. and Sir Purr appearing throughout the evening. See what you will look like in 25 years at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina mobile unit. Play games at the Keffer Hyundai vehicle display, and visit the Forms & Supply, Inc. mobile furniture showroom. Learn how you can help your local United Way.|
|Catwalk||Located outside Bank of America Stadium's North Gate on Graham Street and open from 6 to 8 p.m., with TopCats signing autographs and posing for pictures from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. at the WBT 1110-AM booth. Throw a virtual football with Verizon, and learn about protecting your home from CPI Security. Join the Williams Warriors, running back DeAngelo Williams' team in the Komen Race for the Cure.|
|Invocation||Rev. Luis Tejera - Hickory Grove Baptist Church Latin American Campus, Charlotte, N.C.|
|Presentation Of Colors||U.S. Army 81st Regional Support Command|
|National Anthem||Leydy Bonilla|
|Halftime||Illusionist Michael Grandinetti|