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What to watch: Panthers at Cardinals


First-year head coach Ron Rivera finally has been around the new-look Carolina Panthers long enough to get a feel for what kind of team he has.

Sunday, Rivera will begin to see how that stacks up against what everyone else has.

"This marks a good opportunity for us to find out where we are as a football team," Rivera said. "I'm excited about it. I really am."

Rivera said he was pleased with what he saw from the starters in Carolina's final preseason game, and he hopes to see much more of the same when the Panthers open the regular season Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals are one of just two teams Carolina beat in 2010, but they too have a new look, with quarterback Kevin Kolb now at the helm.

The Panthers started slow in 2010 – losing their first five games – and never recovered. This opener, in Rivera's head coaching debut, represents an opportunity to chart a different course for 2011.

"I think probably the most important thing that Coach Rivera is emphasizing is setting the tone early," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "Not just for the game, but also for the season."

If the Panthers are to start by ending their eight-game road losing streak, here's a look at some of the things they must do.

A NEW(TON) START: The game does mark Rivera's debut, but that's not what many observers will be watching.

Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, will make his first regular season start.

"Slowly but surely, I'm feeling comfortable in this offense," Newton said. "If I can get it 100 percent, watch out."

Rivera has repeatedly stressed that it's not all about Newton, and the quarterback indeed can't do it alone. Newton must limit costly mistakes and make some plays with his feet - things he successfully did in the preseason – but he'll also have to depend on the veterans around him.

"We have some talented backs, and we just want to stay on schedule as an offense," Newton said. "We don't to put ourselves in comprised situations where it's obvious passing situations."


POWERBALL: While Newton, Smith and the running backs will garner much of the attention, it's not going to be the kind of attention they want if the offensive line doesn't perform.

The Panthers love their potential upfront if all the pieces come together, but that's to be determined. Right tackle Jeff Otah returned roughly two weeks ago from a knee injury that sidelined him for nearly two years, and right guard Geoff Hangartner has been with the team for less than a week (though he played for the Panthers from 2005-08).

If those two can mesh with Pro Bowlers Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil and proven veteran Travelle Wharton, the line it could be a formidable group.

"I think we can do great things," Hangartner said. "Hopefully we can get some good things going, run the ball, protect the passer and score some points."


CAUSING FITZ: In wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals possess the one player in the best position to single-handedly decide Sunday's outcome.

The Panthers hope to tie his hands.

"They're going to try to get the ball to him early. I've just got to be ready for him and play my game," Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble said. "If he's on my side, I'm just going to do what I do."

What Gamble aims to do is return to the form he showed in 2009 and before, when he disrupted many a No. 1 receiver.

Gamble struggled much of last season, as did Fitzgerald, who learned he actually couldn't do it single-handedly. Thanks to erratic quarterback play, Fitzgerald managed just six touchdowns after averaging twice that many of the previous three seasons. He did manage nine catches for 125 yards in a loss to the Panthers but didn't score.

If the Cardinals have what they think they have in Kolb, Fitzgerald should be back to his old self. The Panthers have to hope for the same from Gamble, though taming Fitzgerald won't be a one-man job.

Keep an eye on safety Charles Godfrey, who led the Panthers with five interceptions last season and ranked third on the team with a career-high 104 tackles. Godfrey signed a five-year contract extension Friday.

THIRD WATCH: Few things are as frustrating in football as failing to stop an opponent on third-down-and-long – except maybe failing to convert a key third down on offense.

The Panthers know they must be better in both situations to have a shot.

Carolina's offense converted just 28.3 percent of its third downs in the preseason after ranking 30th out of 32 teams last season at 30.4 percent.

Newton has a simple (in theory) solution.

"Third-and-twos are way better than third-and-eights," he said. "We want to stay in rhythm, stay on schedule."

The Cardinals were even worse on third down last season, ranking dead-last at 27.8 percent. In the preseason, however, Kolb helped them rank fourth in the league at 46.2 percent.

"We've got to man up, try to get pressure on Kolb and make him get the ball out quick," Gamble said. "We've got to get off the field so we can get the offense out there."

HAPPY RETURNS: In a game expected to be as competitive as this one, a crucial play on special teams often can spell the difference.

And the Panthers do have some difference-makers.

Armanti Edwards had a couple of scintillating punt returns early in the preseason, and Mike Goodson is capable of taking a kickoff the distance at any moment. Edwards, however, also muffed a punt in the preseason, and Goodson had a couple of fumbles.

Carolina sure could use a big play in the return game, but it needs to be the kind of big play that benefits the Panthers, not the Cardinals.

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