Game Preview: Panthers at Jaguars

CHARLOTTE – While head coach Ron Rivera believes the NFL season is a marathon rather than sprint, he certainly wouldn't mind coming out of the starting gate strong.

Rivera and the Panthers don't have a history of that, but with Sunday's season opener at the Jacksonville Jaguars fast approaching, the fifth-year coach has reason to hope that slow starts could be a thing of the past.

"We've been very fortunate in December that we've been able to put things together in the four seasons we've been here, but you also know that for whatever reason we don't tend to do that (in September)," Rivera said. "We like to kind of put ourselves behind the eight-ball.

"That's not the plan this year obviously, but we'll do the best we can. We'll show up every Sunday."

In four years with Rivera at the helm, the Panthers are 13-3 over the final four games of the regular season, matching the New England Patriots for the best late-season record in the NFL since 2011. By contrast, the Panthers are 5-11 over the first four games of the regular season, including a 1-3 mark in season openers.

When Rivera compares his team now to his team one calendar year ago - when Carolina started 2-2 and won its season opener - he likes what he sees.

"We have some answers," Rivera said. "Coming into it, the only real question everybody has on their minds is, 'What is going to happen at wide receiver?'

"Last year coming in, we had a whole bunch of questions – the offensive line question, the defensive end question, the secondary question, the health of the quarterback question. There were a lot of things weighing very heavily on this team."

So the Panthers might be in better position to win the opener and then sustain a strong start beyond Week 1, but they know better than most not to put all the eggs in that basket. Carolina started 1-3 two years ago before winning 11 of 12 games to finish 12-4, and just last year the Panthers were 3-2-1 but then lost six straight, only to finish 4-0 and capture the NFC South for a second consecutive season.

"You've got to be careful putting so much pressure on the first game," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Being 1-0 is obviously what we want, and we're going to do everything we can to win the first game. But I don't think winning the first game means more than just winning a game.

"The importance of winning in Week 1 is no different than the importance of winning in Week 11. You want to win the game that you're playing – whether that's opening day or whatever."

Still, Olsen and others readily admit that, win or lose, there is something special about opening day.

"We're ready," Olsen said. "We've gone through all the stages of offseason training – from the offseason programs to OTAs to minicamp to that little lull to training camp, then joint practices, four preseason games.

"We've kind of checked all the boxes, and now it's fun to be preparing."

Added linebacker Thomas Davis: "We're definitely eager to start the season. We have a lot of things that we're trying to accomplish this year."

The first step – of many – is Sunday.

"We're not really trying to get off to a fast start; we're trying to start strong. We want to build momentum as we go along," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "We know the season isn't a sprint. The season is very long.

"We've got a long time before we get to San Francisco (site of Super Bowl 50), which is our ultimate goal. So we're just going to take it one week at a game, one day at a time."

LAST TIME THEY PLAYED

Photos from Carolina's win over Jacksonville.

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