CHARLOTTE – The 2022 Carolina Panthers now know what winning feels like, and this week, it has been all about moving that energy forward.
After sealing their first victory over the New Orleans Saints in Week 3, the Panthers will host the Arizona Cardinals (1-2) at Bank of America Stadium in a 4:05 p.m. kickoff Sunday.
Here are five things to watch for in Week 4 against the Cardinals.
CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY'S STATUS
Lead running back Christian McCaffrey is questionable for this week's matchup after a thigh injury kept him out of practice Wednesday (which has also become his regular off day, for full context) and Thursday. He participated in a limited capacity Friday.
McCaffrey's consistent production has shown as a lone bright spot in a Carolina offense that has struggled to click through the season's first three weeks. He totaled two consecutive 100-yard rushing games in Week 2 and Week 3, his first streak since 2019, leading the Panthers' 14th-ranked run game.
McCaffrey told reporters he felt "great" multiple times after Friday's practice. Head coach Matt Rhule said he was "very hopeful" McCaffrey would play Sunday.
If McCaffrey isn't ready to go full speed, the Panthers have D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard behind him. Neither Foreman nor Hubbard has logged a significant number of carries through the season's first three weeks, as both average 1.3 attempts per game with less than 50 yards between the two of them all season.
The Panthers also acquired running back Raheem Blackshear before Week 3, though the rookie has yet to suit up for a game since joining the roster.
WIDEOUTS IN FOCUS
Eyes are naturally fixed upon the Panthers' rushing attack due to an exceptionally slow start to the season in the passing game.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield has completed 51.9 percent of his passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns against one interception this season, ranked 29th in the league. Rhule and the offense is looking for improvement across the board, with a focus on the wide receivers making a jump.
The Panthers' pass game, ranked 31st in the league and averaging just over 161 yards per game, has seen flashes from mainstay wideouts Robbie Anderson and DJ Moore at points through the season. Still, they're looking for consistency from their primary targets.
Anderson and Moore combined for two catches in last week's win over the Saints, while former Jaguar Laviska Shenault Jr. broke out with a 90-yard receiving game in his first outing as a Panther. Shenault is questionable for the Cardinals' game as he battles through a hamstring injury.
SEEKING EFFICIENCY ON THIRD DOWN
The Panthers are ranked 30th in the league in total offense and average just over 276 yards per game. While factors like a struggling passing attack and few offensive plays are crucial, inefficiency on third down holds back the whole.
The Panthers are 31st in the NFL with a 27 percent conversion rate on third down, ahead of only the Texans.
Ask any member of the Panthers' offense about improvement, and they'll automatically mention the need to convert on third down. They'll have an opportunity to put their effort to work against the Cardinals' defense, which stands at last in the league in third-down conversion rate and 31st in scoring defense (partly due to a blowout 44-21 loss in Week 1 against the Chiefs).
Mayfield and the Panthers' offense are also preparing for pressure from Arizona’s aggressive blitzes, though the Cardinals are tied for last place in the league with two sacks, both from defensive end J.J. Watt, who is questionable for Sunday's game with a calf injury.
MANAGING KYLER MURRAY
Murray leads the Cardinals' 12th-ranked passing offense and can extend plays with his legs, which challenges Carolina's 13th-ranked passing defense.
"He can do it all, and he's fearless," Rhule said. "So I think the key for us is to focus on ourselves. We can understand the problems. We can't go out there and be reckless, but we can't go out there and play tentative. We have to rush Kyler the way we do everybody else. We have to trust our coverage, and everyone do their job, and understand that everybody on defense has to run to the ball."
The Panthers didn't face Murray when they beat Arizona last year, but he threw for three touchdowns and ran for 78 yards against Carolina in 2020.
BUILDING UPON THE FIRST WIN ON DEFENSE, SPECIAL TEAMS
The Panthers tasted victory last week for the first time this season, and they'll need another clutch performance from their defense and special teams units to create more momentum.
Carolina's defense went into Week 3 as the league's only team without a takeaway. They left the New Orleans matchup with three, including a Frankie Luvu-forced fumble returned for a touchdown by Marquis Haynes Sr. in the first half, a good-hands interception from defensive lineman Derrick Brown, and a pick to seal the game by Jaycee Horn.
Henry Anderson also blocked a field goal attempt, creating chaos on special teams.
The Panthers' specialists have shown up through the first three weeks. Kicker Eddy Piñeiro may have lingering winds from a tropical storm, but he comes into the Arizona game with a perfect 7-for-7 field goal clip. Punter Johnny Hekker pinned the Saints inside the 20-yard line four times last week, which placed him 10th in NFL history with 308 career punts inside the 20.
Carolina can't guarantee every game will be stuffed with as many big plays as last week on defense and special teams, but they'll look to maintain a consistent showing in those two phases while the offense seeks to make a jump.
Carolina is 14-5 all-time against the Cardinals, including a 2-1 record in the playoffs.