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Carolina Panthers

What to watch: Panthers at Bears


CHARLOTTE - Panthers head coach Ron Rivera makes no bones about it: This isn't just another game for him.

Rivera, however, would love it if it turns out like his other games against the Chicago Bears have.

Rivera will face his former team as a head coach for the first time Sunday. As an assistant coach, Rivera is 5-0 against the Bears, the team that he played for and began his coaching career with.

"I'm really looking forward to going there," Rivera said, "and I'd love to win this football game."

It's not just another game for the Bears either, who like the Panthers are 1-2. Chicago opened against a trio of teams that went 34-14 last season and must travel to an undefeated Detroit team next week, making this a must-win.

The Panthers are just one game out of first place in the NFC South, but the other three teams in the division are all solid favorites this week, so they must win to keep pace.

"This is a very important week to try to get back to .500 and turn things around," right tackle Jeff Otah said. "It's a big opportunity."

Here are some keys to Sunday's showdown at Soldier Field.

HOLD THE PEPPERS: Former Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers made a play that epitomized Carolina's 2010 season when his Bears beat the Panthers, steaming past an offensive lineman, batting a pass and diving to the ground to intercept it.

The Panthers don't want to see a replay Sunday.

"He is a difference-maker, a guy who makes you pay attention," Rivera said. "You most certainly need to know where he is on the field and need to make sure that you give help."

The good news from the Panthers' perspective is that Peppers did help defensive end Charles Johnson develop before he left, and Johnson has a chance to be a difference-maker Sunday as well.

"He helped me a lot," said Johnson, who has a sack in each of the Panthers' first three games. "I was blessed to play behind a defensive end that was dominating. You see how it's supposed to be done and try to mold yourself."


HOW TO HOLD PEPPERS: The Panthers rank 24th in the NFL in rushing with 84 yards per game, a number they likely need to surpass to win Sunday.

For one thing, the running game can take some figurative pressure off rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who actually leads the Panthers in rushing.

It also could literally take some pressure off Newton.

"We know Julius pretty well around here, and we don't want to have to pass-block him 60 times," right guard Geoff Hangartner said. "We want to establish the run so we don't have to do that."


MORE RUNNING COMMENTARY: The Bears traditionally are known for grinding out victories, but they actually rank next-to-last in the NFL in rushing yards, with 53.7 per game.

But much as is the case with Panthers running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams – who have combined to catch 20 passes so far – the Panthers defense can't ignore Bears running back Matt Forte.

Forte has caught 22 balls, and he accounted for more than 150 yards of total offense in each of Chicago's first two games.

"They're a little different right now with (offensive coordinator Mike) Martz there, throwing the ball, but they have a running back that you better be aware of," Rivera said. "Matt Forte is a terrific player. He's the bell cow for them – leading receiver and leading ground gainer. He gets a lot of touches, so you have to account for him on every play."

SOMETHING SPECIAL: Peppers on defense. Forte on offense.

And on special teams, Devin Hester.

Hester is the NFL's all-time leader in kick returns for touchdowns with 14, including 10 punt returns.

Few plays are as devastating to a team than having to punt the ball away and then having the returner take it all the way back for a score.

Since giving up what proved to be the game-winning touchdown to Arizona Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson on a punt return in Week 1, the Panthers haven't given up a single yard in the punt return game.

They aren't likely to completely shut out Hester, but they must keep him out of the end zone.

ROAD WOES: The loss at Arizona extended the Panthers' losing streak in regular season road games to nine. They haven't won on the road since their 2009 finale, and Chicago will present one of the more intimidating environments they'll face.

"Being up at their place, they'll be revved up and ready to go," Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said.

This Panthers team, however, has shown much more poise than the painfully young 2010 squad did, and the Bears actually had a better road record (6-2) than home record (5-3) in 2010.

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