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5 Things To Watch: Defense locked in

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CHARLOTTE — Oh by the way, there's a game this week. Kind of a big one for the Panthers, too.

Perhaps lost in the news of the return of a certain quarterback to his original team, the particulars of this matchup against the 8-1 Cardinals haven't gotten as much attention as it would have otherwise.

Don't worry, we're here to catch you up, because there's a lot going on.

Here are five things to keep an eye on in Sunday's game, other than a quarterback who isn't going to start, since P.J. Walker will be under center to begin the game.

DEFENSE ON ITS TOES

Linebacker Shaq Thompson was brought to the media room this week, ostensibly to talk about his past with quarterback Cam Newton, since that was a topic of great interest this week.

Thompson was trying to be nice about it, but had a message that was clear. When asked if signing Newton sent the same kind of win-now message as the October trade for cornerback Stephon Gilmore, he steered his answer straight back to the present.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I'm just focused in on this game," Thompson said. "Being 1-0 this week, going out there to play one of the best teams in the NFL right now. Going against one of the most explosive offenses. Quarterback Kyler Murray's having a hell of a year. That's my focus right now.

"We love having Stephon, he's balling out for us right now. The defense is built to win right now, I can say that. But this team is definitely going to be built to win too. We're just going out there and take care of business. We're rocking with P.J. this week, and P.J. is going to go out there and have a hell of a game."

The Panthers defense playing at a high level is one of the reasons Newton is back — you don't want to waste the efforts of a unit that's ranked second in the NFL.

But they also know that Newton just walked in the door, so his ability to impact things is limited. That means they have to be locked in on continuing to play the kind of smothering defense they have been.

GUESSING GAME

The Panthers have prepared for a Cardinals offense that has plenty of weapons, but it's unclear if they're going to be there Sunday.

It starts with quarterback Kyler Murray, who has been described as a game-time decision for the second week in a row. Last week, they decided to let him rest a sore ankle, and veteran backup Colt McCoy led them to an impressive 31-17 win over the 49ers. Murray practiced Friday for the first time after missing five straight sessions.

The Cardinals are also unsure about the status of star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has a hamstring injury. Wide receiver A.J. Green is back from the COVID-19 list, and the Cardinals have plenty of weapons on offense.

HOT STREAK

The Panthers have won five straight against the Cardinals, including last year's surprising win in Charlotte.

They're 11-4 all-time in the regular season against Arizona, their best winning percentage against any NFC team, and 5-2 at Arizona.

The Cardinals haven't beaten the Panthers since the 2013 regular season, and they also won in the 2011 opener, when Newton made his pro debut, and threw for 422 yards, with two touchdown passes to Steve Smith and also ran for a touchdown.

STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH

The Panthers aren't the only team playing great defense, as they face another top-10 unit for the second week in a row.

The Cardinals are fourth in the league in total defense and third in points allowed, and they're getting safety Budda Baker back on the field.

While Christian McCaffrey's return to the field last week should help, this is still a considerable challenge for Walker in his second NFL start. After last week's injuries to left tackle Cameron Erving and center Matt Paradis that landed them on IR, the Panthers will be starting their seventh different combination of offensive linemen in 10 games this year.

The Cardinals don't need the help. They have allowed fewer than 20 points and 350 total yards in five of their nine games this season, tied for the most in the NFL.

SACK MATCHUP

The Cardinals were willing to let Haason Reddick leave in free agency last year because they had a replacement on hand. And now they're both among the league leaders.

The Cardinals traded for Marcus Golden after last year's injury to Chandler Jones, and re-signed him this offseason.

Now, Golden is tied for third in the league with 9.0 sacks, with four forced fumbles.

Reddick has made his presence felt quickly in Carolina, with 8.5 sacks, which is sixth in the league. He's also tied for the league lead with 12 tackles for loss.

BONUS GAMEDAY RECIPE

Remember that Harris Teeter has all of your Tailgate or Homegating needs! Enjoy this recipe from Harris Teeter & Hillshire Farm - Smoked Sausage Salad

Carolina is 13-5 all-time against the Cardinals, including a 2-1 record in the playoffs.

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