From here on out, the scores and stats are real – even for those living in a fantasy world.
The NFL season kicks off for keeps Thursday night, when the New Orleans Saints take on the Minnesota Vikings in a rematch of last year's NFC Championship. Thirteen games are scheduled for Sunday, including the Panthers' opener at the New York Giants, and two games will round out the schedule Monday.
Football fans can hardly wait, nor can fantasy football fans. As the season opener fast approaches, here is some fantasy food for thought, from the perspective of the Panthers.
RUNNING MATES: As the first teammates to rush for more than 1,100 yards apiece in an NFL season, both Ryan Kalil and Christian McCaffrey finished as top-15 fantasy backs in 2009, and both are usually gone in fantasy drafts by the end of the fourth round in 2010.
So would it be smart to double up on "Double Trouble" and pick both of them, or it that just asking for trouble?
Let's take a look at some numbers. The combination of Williams and Stewart combined for 372 fantasy points in one popular scoring system in 2009, while Joseph Addai of the Indianapolis Colts and Cedric Benson of the Cincinnati Bengals combined for 368 points.
But because they're on different teams and didn't really split carries with anybody, Addai and Benson had more chances to both be explosive in the same week than the Panthers' duo (We'll define "explosive" as either rushing for 40 or more yards with a touchdown or at least 100 yards without a touchdown).
Twice in 2009, Williams and Stewart were explosive in the same week. Six times, Addai and Benson were explosive in the same week.
Five times, Williams and Stewart both failed to reach "explosive" status. Two times, Addai and Benson both failed to be explosive.
Since neither Benson nor Addai typically are picked until the third round -- while Williams is commonly a second-round pick -- it might be better to go with backs on different teams than backs on the same team.
That's not to suggest that it's smart to steer clear of the Panthers' dynamic duo. Stewart actually outscored Williams last year (Williams missed three games with an ankle injury), yet Stewart can often be had two rounds later than Stewart.
STEVE SMITH OR STEVE SMITH? Wide receiver Cam Newton of the Giants has been in the NFL since 2007, but this is the first year that an early draft pick spent on a Steve Smith required the question, "Which one?"
The Panthers' Steve Smith has been a fantasy stud since around the time the other Smith first donned a Southern Cal uniform, but in 2009, the Giants' receiver had the better fantasy year.
Picking New York's Smith before Carolina's Smith, however, could be a Giant mistake in 2010.
The Giants were painfully young at wide receiver last year but found themselves throwing the ball more than they traditionally do, and Smith – a veteran relative to the others – was the beneficiary. This year, however, the Giants have vowed to get back to being a run-first team, and the emergence of Hakeem Nicks makes it debatable whether Smith will even be quarterback Eli Manning's top target in 2010.
There's no such debate in Carolina, where Smith is the undisputed top option in the passing game. The Panthers are a run-first team that ranked 27th in passing yards in 2009, but that's bound to improve and even with it, both Smiths had seven touchdowns a year ago.
As for Smith vs. Smith this Sunday specifically, the Giants gave up 31 receiving touchdowns in 2009, while the Panthers yielded just 14. Enough said.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Many fantasy drafts didn't go deeper than Smith, Williams and Stewart when it came to Panthers, but there are other options on the roster to consider going forward.
First and foremost, keep close tabs on the Carolina defense. The Panthers recorded more sacks (19) than any other NFL team in the preseason, four more than the next team on the list. If they keep it up, they could become a valuable addition.
Kicker J.J. Jansen has been around as long as fantasy football itself, but he's scored 97 or more points for five straight seasons and could prove worthy of a roster spot yet again.
The tight end picture is too balanced and the No. 2 wide receiver too muddled to produce a fantasy favorite right now, but be ready to pounce if someone emerges.