CHARLOTTE – As they get set for Week 4 at Tampa Bay, the Panthers are eyeing a perfect first quarter of the season: 4-0 entering the Week 5 bye.
"Everybody would have signed up to be 4-0 going into the bye. Here we are in position to get that accomplished," tight end Greg Olsen said.
But before they can look ahead to a break, they need to take care of business against another NFC South foe.
"We're looking to go on the road and play a team that's getting better each and every week," Olsen said. "It's going to be a big challenge – going on the road to play a division opponent is never easy."
The Buccaneers (1-2) are a young and developing in some key areas, but they also have some dangerous top-end talent.
Lengthy wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans present a challenge for any secondary, and on the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David are dynamic playmakers.
But for the Buccaneers, their hope for a quick turnaround starts and ends with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, the No.1 overall pick from the 2015 draft.
"Watching him, they are going to take their lumps. They know it," head coach Ron Rivera said. "They are just looking for him to have a breakout game. Those are going to be great moments for them. He's a solid young football player who has done some good things already. And he's learning and growing."
Three games is a small sample size, but it gives an indication of where Tampa Bay is. In the two games in which Winston completed less than 50 percent of his passes, the Bucs lost. When he completed 66 percent of his passes and didn't toss an interception, Tampa Bay claimed its lone win over New Orleans.
Decision-making, reading the coverage, getting the ball out on time – these are big adjustment areas for rookie quarterbacks. The Panthers – ranked seventh in the NFL in total defense and second in points allowed – will look to confuse and disrupt the rookie pocket-passer.
"It is going to be a tough one," Winston said. "There are veterans everywhere. This is a tough defense, man. They make you make smart decisions."
Cam Newton, another former top overall pick who was a starter from Day One, is playing some of the best football of his career.
He has accounted for all seven of the Panthers' offensive touchdowns – five passes and two rushing scores. He's been spreading the ball around and making the right reads to keep drives alive.
And with Newton leading, the way the Panthers are intent on carrying the early momentum they've created to a fourth consecutive victory to start the year.
"We can't overlook this team," Newton said. "We have to find ways that will lead to us becoming 4-0."