CHARLOTTE – Regular season NFL football is finally here.
The Carolina Panthers start their 2022 campaign at home, facing the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. The matchup kicks off at 1 p.m.
Defensively, Carolina has focused on the goal of moving "from good to great," and offensively, they'll bring new-found depth along the offensive line and a new quarterback in Baker Mayfield, who will face his former team in Week 1.
Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said Thursday he has concentrated on staying in the present amid all of the emotion. In a press conference, he shared one of his tips on how he keeps things in perspective through excitement.
"I think breathing is important," McAdoo said. "We need to focus on our breathing, slow our breathing down, and it will be contagious the rest of the week."
So take some deep breaths, a quick glance at Sunday's weather forecast (Yes, it may be rainy), and a look at the five things we'll be watching when Cleveland comes to town.
IKEM EKWONU STARTS HIS NFL CAREER AGAINST MYLES GARRETT
During the offseason, the Panthers retooled their offensive line, adding Austin Corbett and Bradley Bozeman in free agency and using their first-round draft pick on a left tackle. That pick, Charlotte native Ikem Ekwonu, will be welcomed to the league with a matchup against three-time Pro Bowler Myles Garrett.
Ekwonu was named Carolina's starting left tackle midway through preseason action, and his 6-foot-4, 320-pound frame makes him a natural run blocker. He has spent time adjusting to pass protection in the NFL, and he'll have his work cut out for him against Garrett, a prolific pass rusher.
Garrett ranked top three in sacks and quarterback hits in 2021, with a Browns franchise-record 16.0 sacks (third in NFL) and 33 quarterback hits (second in NFL).
He contributed to a Cleveland defense that allowed the league's third-fewest pass yards per attempt, fifth-fewest pass yards, and fifth-fewest total yards per game last year.
JACOBY BRISSETT GETS THE START FOR CLEVELAND
The Browns acquired quarterback Deshaun Watson after Mayfield fell out of favor while playing through an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Watson is suspended for the first 11 games of the season, so Cleveland will start Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.
Brissett, who has primarily played a backup role throughout his seven-year career, had 30 of his 37 career starts with the Colts in 2017 and 2019. He carries a 14-23 record as a starter, but Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski will need Brissett to show he can answer the call for most of the season.
Brissett's preseason performance came with mixed results, most recently completing 13-of-23 pass attempts for 109 yards and an interception in Cleveland's 21-20 preseason loss to Chicago on Aug. 27. He didn't lead the Browns to a touchdown, but he set up two field goal attempts of more than 55 yards. Cleveland rookie kicker Cade York converted from 57 yards and missed from 58.
BAKER MAYFIELD FACES HIS FORMER TEAM
Even Mayfield said he knows the Week 1 storyline is "great." His departure from Cleveland was full of headlines, and the subsequent trade to Carolina means that he'll play his former team in his Panther debut.
Despite his history of fiery comments and a reports of spicy preseason exchange this season (which he denied), Mayfield has kept that side of his personality largely buttoned up in media settings since his arrival.
He has remained stoic but honest, admitting he won't be a "robot" about the matchup but acknowledging there won’t be as much of an added edge as there will be familiarity.
"Football is a violent, very emotional, passionate sport, and that's the way I've always played it," Mayfield said. "I'm not going to change that. In the grand scheme of things, it's a great storyline – it really is – because I wasn't expected to be out of Cleveland. But after Week 1, there are 16 more that really, really matter. That's how I'm approaching it."
Despite receiving the playbook just two weeks before training camp, Mayfield won the job over last year's starter Sam Darnold. He's since taken command of a room that has had injury issues of its own, including Darnold's ankle sprain that has him sidelined for at least four weeks, and a season-ending Lisfranc injury to rookie Matt Corral.
Mayfield looked increasingly comfortable in his final preseason start against Buffalo, going 9-of-15 for 89 yards and two touchdowns.
CLEVELAND'S PROLIFIC RUN GAME, SPEARHEADED BY NICK CHUBB
The Browns will likely lean on their strengths in the run game, and Brissett will have a prolific pair of running backs to incorporate.
Nick Chubb has averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his five-year career at Cleveland, which stands second all-time in the NFL for players with a minimum of 900 carries.
Chubb is the first running back in league history to average more than 5.0 yards per carry in each of his first four seasons. The only other player to do that is Cam Newton.
Cleveland also brings back Kareem Hunt, who missed nine games in 2021 with calf and ankle injuries but totaled 386 rush yards and five touchdowns in eight games played. Hunt was named to the 2018 Pro Bowl as a rookie with the Chiefs, leading the NFL in rushing yards that season.
It'll be a test for the Panthers' defensive front, which added bulk in the interior in Matt Ioannidis during free agency and Henry Anderson ahead of Week 1.
CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY RETURNS
The Panthers will also look for a strong performance from their starting running back, as star Christian McCaffrey returns in 2022 after two injury-marred seasons.
McCaffrey is one of the top tailbacks in the NFL, leading the league for most scrimmage yards per game since 2019 (136.6). He's a versatile option out of the backfield and in the passing game and led the NFL with 5,443 scrimmage yards from 2017-2019.
McCaffrey said he’s ready to go, feeling "the best he's ever felt." And his preseason preparation has garnered attention from his teammates.
McCaffrey didn't play in the preseason, but head coach Matt Rhule said Carolina's top offensive weapon wouldn't be held back once the regular season starts.
Carolina announced the 2022 captains are Christian McCaffrey, Baker Mayfield, Taylor Moton, Shaq Thompson, Jeremy Chinn, Brian Burns, Donte Jackson and J.J. Jansen.