What to watch: Panthers-Giants

Heading into Sunday's regular season opener between the Carolina Panthers and the New York Giants at New Meadowlands Stadium, there's no doubt that the Giants vividly recall how the Panthers derailed their playoff hopes late last season.

The Panthers, however, remember how quickly they derailed their own playoff hopes in 2009.

While the Panthers embraced the role of spoilers in a 41-9 romp over the Giants in Week 16, they certainly didn't want to be cast in that role. They had little choice, however, after losing their first three games of the season to dig too deep of a hole, though they did recover to finish 8-8.

"Of course they remember last year, when we ended their chances of getting to the playoffs. Now we've just got to go in this game with the mindset that we're trying to get to the playoffs," Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart said. "Last year, we had a bad start. We can't have a bad start this year."

Getting off to a better start won't be easy against the Giants, a team that had gone to the playoffs for four consecutive seasons entering last year and started 2009 with five consecutive victories before fading.

Here's what to look for as the Panthers try to get off to a fast start.

CROSSING THE LINE: The Panthers found the end zone at will in the teams' meeting last year, but that was against the 2009 Giants, who ranked 30th in the NFL in scoring defense at 26.7 points per game.

Over four preseason games in 2010, the Panthers offense didn't reach the end zone even once.

The Panthers say that doesn't matter. They played their starters roughly six of the 16 quarters in the preseason and never really committed to their bread-and-butter running game in order to give maximum snaps to the much less proven passing game. Along the way, they played without Stewart and wide receiver Steve Smith, who are good to go for Sunday.

The Giants can counter by saying the Panthers won't be facing the same defense they did in December. New defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, a native of Gastonia, N.C., is fueling a newfound confidence, and the Giants also have overhauled a secondary that struggled in 2009.


HOLDING THE LINE: The Panthers will have Stewart and Smith back, but they're still without starting right tackle Jeff Otah (knee).

The duty falls to second-year pro Geoff Schwartz, but several signs point to Schwartz being up to the task. He worked in Otah's spot throughout the preseason, and he started the last three games of 2009 in Otah's spot, when the Panthers put up 183 rushing yards per game.

"We've got a lot of confidence in Geoff Schwartz," head coach John Fox said. "He's a starter in our mind."

Schwartz is just one piece of the puzzle that must produce some semblance of a passing game to keep the Giants honest. It's a tall task given the Giants' improved personnel in the secondary and their relentless group of pass rushers, as well as the Panthers' lack of experience behind Smith at wide receiver.

"It's going to be fun to see how they react, how everybody reacts," quarterback Matt Moore said. "You've got to get that experience sometime, and for us, a lot of guys are going to get their first game experience on Sunday. They'll be ready."


OTHER SIDE OF THE LINE: The Panthers' defensive line, minus Julius Peppers, racked up four more sacks than any other team in the preseason.

The numbers reset this week, however, and the line's ability to keep up the pressure against Eli Manning and Co. could be key to the game's outcome.

"Obviously we don't have a lot of big names, but we all want to prove something," defensive tackle Nick Hayden said. "We want to show that we can play, that we want to make a name for ourselves.

"It starts with this game."


TOEING THE LINE: If the Panthers' defense does its job, Carolina should be fielding plenty of kicks from rookie punter Matt Dodge.

Panthers fans undoubtedly will hold their breath waiting to see how that goes.

The Panthers struggled in that area throughout the preseason. At this point, the job is back in the possession of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who was solid in the role as a rookie in 2009.

That's exactly what the Panthers need at this early juncture of the season.


THE LINE ON INTANGIBLES: The Giants will be plenty motivated, opening their new $1.7 billion stadium against the team that drubbed them in their final game at old Giants Stadium.

They'll have a homefield advantage to be sure but may have lost one potential advantage in the exchange.

"The other one was a bowl with the only real opening being the tunnel at the end. Sometimes that door would be open or shut, and it could affect things," said Fox, who was defensive coordinator for the Giants for five seasons before coming to Carolina in 2002. "This stadium, I don't think it has those options."

The Giants will be fired up, but Panthers have their causes as well. They want to silence the talk about their preseason problems, and wouldn't they just love to leave Giants fans speechless yet again on a special day for the franchise?

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