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Five Things to Watch at New York: Seeking a fast start

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CHARLOTTE – The Panthers had enough positives and negatives to pull from their Week 1 loss to Cleveland that they head into this week with places to build upon and areas to improve.

Carolina travels to face the New York Giants (1-0) at MetLife Stadium for a 1 p.m. kickoff Sunday, looking for its first win of the 2022 season.

Here are five things to watch in Week 2:

CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY LOOKS TO BUILD MOMENTUM

Christian McCaffrey is good at football, and while that's not news, he'll be looking to make another statement after a more subdued Week 1 performance.

He returned against the Browns after playing just seven games in 2021, and although he didn't necessarily light up the stat sheet, McCaffrey showed his playmaking abilities hadn't escaped him.

Officially, McCaffrey ran for 33 yards and a touchdown on 10 attempts against Cleveland, but he also picked up a botched snap and took it 28 yards for a first down – numbers that didn't factor into the mix because it was a fumble recovery. He also caught all four of his targets for 24 yards, including a 21-yard reception for a first down.

McCaffrey rested during Wednesday's practice, a move head coach Matt Rhule said is likely to be a regular thing for the star running back, and he was at full speed in Thursday and Friday practices.

FACING SAQUON BARKLEY

The Panthers will want a big day from their running back while also looking to neutralize another rusher on a mission to prove he's still sharp after injury.

Like McCaffrey, Giants running back Saquon Barkley missed games in 2020 and 2021 due to injury. And Barkley's first game this season showed he should be just fine.

The Titans struggled to contain New York's run game in Week 1, as the Giants totaled the league's most rushing yards last week (238), paced by Barkley's 164 yards on the day, which earned him NFC offensive player of the week honors.

Across the first two weeks, the Panthers go from one prolific run game to another. The Browns put up 217 yards rushing behind Nick Chubb's 141-yard day in Week 1, outlining the improvement needed for Carolina's defense as they head up to New York.

STARTING FASTER ON OFFENSE

Baker Mayfield and the Panthers' offense are fully aware they need to start faster on offense this week. They clicked down the stretch in Week 1, but a first half of stagnant drives and self-inflicted errors held back a comeback against the Browns.

Mayfield catalyzed Carolina's return from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter last week, completing 5-of-6 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) to take the late-game lead in Week 1. Still, Mayfield went 11-of-21 passing for 104 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception in the first three quarters, with four botched snaps and four batted passes sprinkled throughout the day.

Still, the Panthers' message throughout the week has been clear: They're focused on starting faster and maintaining the momentum on offense, and the upcoming trip to New York is a chance for them to show they're moving forward.

DEFENSE GETTING BACK TO BASICS

After reviewing Week 1 film, Rhule confirmed the Panthers missed 18 tackles against Cleveland. Schemes and game plans could alter week-to-week, but Carolina's defense spent time in practice this week honing in on the basics.

The Panthers worked on tackling drills during Thursday's practice, and defensive end Brian Burns said they've held post-practice meetings with the defensive line and linebackers to review the tape and get on the same page. Burns said the meetings were something the units have done later on in previous seasons, but veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson suggested they meet up sooner this year.

"Just so we know what they're thinking," Burns said. "So when we get in certain situations, certain formations that we see, it might be a call they want to give us, or a line movement, anything like that. And we need to know pretty much what they're thinking so we can stay on the same page as them."

PLANNING ON PUNT RETURNS

Veteran wide receiver and return specialist Andre Roberts headed to IR this week and isn’t expected to return for a couple of months, so Rhule initially planned for Shi Smith to return punts and Chuba Hubbard to handle kickoff duties.

But even the best laid plans often go awry.

Smith, coming off a productive preseason and Week 1 start at wide receiver, landed on the injury report with a groin issue Friday and was ruled questionable for the New York game. While Rhule said Smith was "on the positive side of questionable," the uncertainty means that the Panthers could go with either DJ Moore or Laviska Shenault Jr., who wasn't activated for Week 1 after joining the roster late, on punt returns.

View photos from the spirit walk where Panthers staff were invited to rally together for spirit and fellowship before personally cheering on the team as they come off the practice field.

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