Each week, your esteemed Panthers.com writers will aim to boil down a week's worth of pregame analysis into a handful of sentences.
When the Panthers and Cowboys at long last take the field for Sunday's season opener at Bank of America Stadium, here's what will matter most.
Offensive key: Will Cam Newton get off to a fast start? He expressed his confidence that the offense can come out of the gate in "midseason form," even with questions along the offensive line. While Carolina has won three of its last four openers – including 2014 when Newton was out injured – Newton hasn't thrown for 200 yards in an opener since 2012 and was last interception-free in 2013.
Defensive key: Not the most original thought, but containing Ezekiel Elliott is crucial. He's averaging more than 100 yards rushing through 25 career games, but the Panthers were the only NFL team to not allow an individual to reach the 100-yard mark in 2017. Elliott also can be dangerous as a receiver, a skill that Shaq Thompson will try to contain in Thomas Davis's stead.
Gutsy guess: When last we saw Damiere Byrd in a game that counted, he was returning a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown in a Week 16 victory over the Buccaneers that clinched a playoff spot. Byrd scored three touchdowns in his final two games before heading to injured reserve with a leg injury. He might not get a ton of opportunities even with fellow wideout Curtis Samuel out of action, but here's guessing he'll make the most of one of them and find the end zone on a long pass play.
Offensive key: With the rash of injuries the Panthers have dealt with along the O-line, and with DeMarcus Lawrence rushing the passer, Carolina has to stay out of third-and-long situations. Success on early downs with a good mix of run and (quick) pass is crucial. The worst thing for Daryl Williams – or whoever has to play right tackle – would be facing Lawrence with his ears pinned back.
Defensive key: I'm looking at the interior disruptors – Kawann Short and Dontari Poe. Everyone knows the Cowboys want to lean on Elliott and that powerful offensive line. As Ron Rivera said, "They're an offensive line driven team." Short and Poe have the ability to wreak havoc up the middle and stop Elliott before he gets going. And with Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick sidelined and rookie Connor Williams set to start at left guard, Carolina is well positioned with two top tier D-tackles to take advantage.
Gutsy guess: Donte Jackson is going to start, and the Cowboys are likely going to test him. Who wouldn't test a rookie corner in his first career start? But something tells me (beyond Donte himself) that the second-rounder from LSU is ready to seize the moment. He's full of confidence and was a bright spot throughout camp and the preseason. I'll say the first takeaway of the 2018 season comes courtesy of Jackson.
Offensive key: Plenty of people snickered when Ron Rivera said Christian McCaffrey could get 25-30 touches a game. Then McCaffrey got all the touches in the preseason. If he's going to get so much work, and they're still determined to send him through the middle of the line, he needs to break more tackles than he did as a rookie. If the preseason was any indication, his offseason muscle gain could help him do that starting this week.
Defensive key: Needing to slow down Elliott is such an unoriginal thought all three of us thought it. As Max pointed out, the Panthers have an advantage on the interior which is why my key is containing Elliott on the outside. The Cowboys will likely try to get him in space, so Carolina's ends have to play with discipline and help set the point of attack.
Gutsy guess: There's a segment of the fanbase that thinks Torrey Smith is just taking up cap space, but I think he's vital to where the Panthers need to go vertically. Smith will yet again prove his preseason stats are meaningless when he hauls in a 44-yard touchdown.