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What to watch: Panthers at Cardinals

For nearly two weeks now, the Carolina Panthers have basked in the glow of the most lopsided victory in franchise history.

But by the light of game day, which has at long last arrived again, that victory no longer matters.

"Honestly, that game seems like it was about a year ago," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "The bye is good, but the bye is long. It's a long time between games."

The 38-0 victory over the New York Giants on Sept. 22 served notice as to the capability of this team, but now the Panthers must prove they're not one-hit wonders. Their opportunity to do just that awaits Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals.

"We're not going to have a parade right now. We're 1-2," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We beat a team that is now 0-4. Are we happy about the win? Yeah, but I don't think we are ready to crown ourselves anything more than a 1-2 team that is looking to get better.

"The Cardinals are 2-2, but I think they are really close to being even better than that. We've got our work cut out for us. Anytime you play on the road and travel cross-country, it's a big challenge."

The Panthers appear to have to the perfect mindset entering the game, but they need to have a perfect game plan as well. Here are the keys to parlaying the Giants game into a winning streak.

PRESSURE PALMER: The Panthers showed against the Giants what kind of damage their defensive line can do when a quarterback can't escape their rush.

They're setting the sights on more of the same against Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer.

"We're going to get after the quarterback," defensive end Charles Johnson said. "That's what we do."

And the Panthers did it well against Eli Manning and the Giants, tying a franchise record with seven sacks. They pressured but couldn't bring down elusive quarterbacks Russell Wilson and E.J. Manuel the first two weeks of the season, but Palmer is more in the Manning mold.

"With a front like this, you can't sit back there in seven-step drops and hold on to the ball," Palmer said. "The ball has to come out."

If the Panthers can get to Palmer and get him off-kilter like they did Manning, it could set the stage for another big defensive day.

"If they get the pressure they got against the Giants, we should get a lot of interceptions because he doesn't like to be hit – no quarterback likes to be hit," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said.

RUSH HOUR: The Panthers offense has helped keep the defense fresh and has kept the chains moving by ranking third in the NFL in rushing, but the Cardinals rank second when it comes to stopping the run.

"They're built to stop the run, make you one-dimensional and force your quarterback to beat them," running back DeAngelo Williams said. "We can't let them make us one-dimensional."

The Cardinals are stout against the run to be sure, but they are yet to see a rushing attack quite like the Panthers. Arizona has faced a lot of pass-first teams, and while they Cardinals have held opposing running backs to 265 yards on the ground, backs have caught 32 passes for 258 yards.

Perhaps more notably, they're yet to face a quarterback that's a real threat in the run game. While the four quarterbacks they've opposed have totaled 19 rushing yards, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has 98 rushing yards through three games.


PLAYMAKERS: Getting sacks and getting the run game going are important, but all of that work can be neutralized by a game-altering play or two.

The Cardinals have a couple of game-changers that stand out above the crowd in wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Fitzgerald had a career-low four touchdown receptions in 2012 as the Cardinals struggled to find consistent production at quarterback, but he already has three this season.

"He's a big-time player that makes big-time plays," Munnerlyn said.

Peterson, who beat the Panthers the last time they visited Arizona with a punt return for a touchdown, has joined Fitzgerald on the offensive side of the ball on occasion this season. He has two catches for 15 yards, has an 11-yard rush and has even completed a pass.

"Punt return, kick return, wide receiver, lockdown corner, team chef, team physician - that's 'Pat P,' " Newton said. "He's been doing that since high school."

CLOSE CALLS: While the Panthers dropped a pair of close games to open the season, the Cardinals have already rallied to a pair of victories. Against both the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Cardinals put up three unanswered scores in the late going to emerge triumphant.

Ideally, the Panthers won't let Arizona hang close, but it's rare in the NFL to comfortably win on the road. If it does come down to the last few minutes, it would provide the Panthers another opportunity to show they can get the job done in such situations.

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