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The Last Word: Panthers vs. Ravens

Bryan Strickland

Offensive key: The Panthers scored first in their first two games, but in each of their last four games they've found themselves in varying degrees of first-half holes. The Ravens' vaunted defense will be a tough one to buck that trend against, but finding a way to do so could change the entire tenor of the game. Baltimore - ranked first in the league in total defense, scoring defense and sacks - was dinged early by the Bengals in Week 2 and the Broncos in Week 3, but the Ravens haven't given up a first-quarter point since (Getting them late isn't easy either; the Saints last week scored the first two second-half touchdowns against Baltimore all year). The Panthers' only first-quarter touchdowns through six games came against the Bengals and Giants at home. Their lone points on an opening possession came courtesy of a field goal at the Falcons. Again, it's a tall order, but a scoring drive to start the game could put the Ravens slightly on their heels. "Just imagine," wide receiver Jarius Wright said, "if we don't have to come back from 17 points down."

Defensive key: John Brown's circuitous route to the NFL began at Mars Hill College in North Carolina. He's been running circuitous routes and making circus catches in his first season with the Ravens. He's in the top 15 in the league with 558 yards and four receiving touchdowns, and his 19.9 yards per catch rank third among pass catchers with at least 20 grabs. He's an offensive difference-maker for an offense that doesn't have a lot of big-play guys (all four of the Ravens' 40-plus-yard plays have been made by Brown). Carolina's defense is good enough to give the Ravens problems, but Brown is good enough to cause problems and change the course of the game. To use defensive coordinator Eric Washington's phrase, the Panthers have to be "vertically secure" with Brown on the field.

Gutsy guess: The Ravens have allowed just two opponents to top 14 points this season, but the Panthers will strike early and at least top that seemingly modest mark. The Ravens have scored at least 21 points in six of seven games this season, but they won't get there against the Panthers. So Carolina will score more than 14 and Baltimore will score less than 21? That doesn't add up to a guaranteed victory for the home team, but you have to like the Panthers' prospects.

Bill Voth

Offensive key: As Clu Heywood comes to the plate in the deciding game of "Major League," Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) describes the intimidating Yankees' slugger as leading "the league in most offensive categories, including nose hair." That's pretty much the Ravens right now, except they're statistically dominant on defense – and I can't speak for the nose hair part. But Baltimore's secondary can be beaten if a quarterback has time. Yes, that's a big IF. Still, cornerback Jimmy Smith struggled mightily in his first start of the season last week, so if Ryan Kalil can help orchestrate the front line, and if Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson solidify the second line, there will be plays to make for Cam Newton downfield.

Defensive key: For the third straight week, I'm gonna go with third down. In their four wins, the Ravens have gone 34-for-64 (53.1 percent) on third. They went 16-for-44 (36.4 percent) in their three losses. In the Panthers' four wins, they've held opponents to 9-for-40 (22.5 percent) on third down. Atlanta and Washington went 13-for-27 (48.1 percent). So simple math shows when the Panthers get off the field, they give themselves a much better chance.

Gutsy guess: With Torrey Smith (knee) out, many fans are excited to see increased snaps for DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel. But don't sleep on Damiere Byrd, who also stands to see more of the field and who knows the "Z" better than anyone else on the roster. My guess is he'll be back in the end zone for the first time since his two-score game against the Packers last December.

Max Henson

Offensive key: The best way to give yourself a chance at success against a top-notch defense is success on first down. Carolina is a little better than average with 6.18 yards per first-down play. The Ravens are unsurprisingly among the best on first downs defensively, allowing 4.87 yards per play. Manageable down-and-distance situations are a must against a Baltimore defense that can terrorize an offensive line with complex looks and dynamic pass rushers on third-and-long.

Defensive key: The Ravens have struggled running the ball, so much so that they rank 31st in yards per attempt (3.8). That's not going to stop them from trying, as evidenced by Baltimore having the fifth most rushes in the NFL. Carolina's run defense has been up and down through six games. Can't underestimate running back Alex Collins and have a downer on Sunday.

Gutsy guess: Julius Peppers and Terrell Suggs are the ageless wonders who've been talked about a lot this week, but we can't forget about 37-year-old safety Mike Adams, who is sitting on 29 career interceptions. Adams was mad at himself for dropping No. 30 in the closing moments of last week's game at Philadelphia. He'll get it by picking off a deep toss from Flacco, who like Adams played his college ball at Delaware.