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What to watch: Panthers vs. 49ers


CHARLOTTE – Any way you slice it, the Carolina Panthers are yet to win a game this season.

But the way the Panthers are choosing to look at it – especially coming off a rejuvenating bye week – is that they're undefeated this week.

"All that stuff is gone," quarterback Matt Moore. "This is the only week now."

The San Francisco 49ers, who visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, started 0-5 just like the Panthers but won last week after their owner proclaimed that they would bounce back and win their division.

The Panthers aren't stepping out on that limb, but they do believe their week off could help them avoid another off-week.

"I think the bye week came at a good time for us," center Ryan Kalil said. "We were able to sit back and watch some of the stuff we were doing, see what was going wrong and make some changes, hopefully for the best."

The 49ers would like to change their fate when it comes to road games. They've lost eight of their last nine – including an 0-3 mark this season – and historically have struggled on long trips to the East Coast. Since 1999, they're 13-54 in games that start at 1 p.m. ET (that's 10 a.m. in San Francisco) but are 13-13 in other road games.

The 49ers were the Panthers' first real rival when Carolina joined the NFL in 1995 and both teams were in the NFC West (the Panthers moved to the newly formed NFC South in 2002). Carolina leads the all-time series 9-7.

In addition to taking advantage of homefield, here are some other areas to watch if the Panthers are to continue their success against San Francisco.

MOORE CONSISTENCY: While the 49ers struggles have resulted in calls to bench quarterback Alex Smith, the Panthers already have made two switches under center.

The Panthers hope that Moore, back in the starting lineup for the first time since Week 2, will look like a different quarterback the second time around.

"He had a good week – a good two weeks actually," head coach John Fox said. "Coming off the bye, we had a lot of time to go back, research some things, practice some things, highlight some things. He had a good week of preparation."

Moore said he gained new perspective from his time on the bench, but what the Panthers want to see is the Moore of old. Before this season, Moore had 11 touchdown passes versus three interceptions while going 6-2 as a starter; earlier this season, he threw two TDs versus four interceptions while going 0-2 as a starter.


MOORE HELP: Fox has repeatedly mentioned that the Panthers' offensive struggles extend beyond the quarterback position, so the solution must as well.

The wide receiver position will be a interesting one to monitor along those lines Sunday. Steve Smith returns from a one-game absence caused by an ankle injury; recent acquisition David Clowney has had nearly two more weeks to learn the playbook after catching a pair of passes in his debut; and even more recent acquisition Devin Thomas could make his debut.

With that trio and the rookie trio of David Gettis, Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards on the roster, there's little chance all will be active come Sunday. The numbers that are called to action know they need to make something happen for the sake of Moore and the offense.

MOORE'S COUNTERPART: A couple of Carolina defenders reeled off the depth of talent the San Francisco offense possesses, mentioning running back Frank Gore, tight end Vernon Davis, a wide receiver group headed by Michael Crabtree and even an offensive line featuring some first-round talent.

Neither mentioned quarterback Alex Smith, who probably wishes fans wouldn't mention him, either.

"It's part of the game, and you have to deal with it," Smith said. "As a quarterback you get judged on wins and losses, and when you're 0-5 you have to respect that."

Smith has been the scapegoat for an offense that has outscored only the Panthers and the Cleveland Browns for the season.

The Panthers' goal? Whether it's justified or not, keep Smith on the hot seat.

"They've got multiple weapons," safety Sherrod Martin said, "but we've got in a good gameplan and just have to execute."

KICKING THEMSELVES: The Panthers gave up a 62-yard kickoff return that put them in an immediate hole in their last game, then yielded a 50-yard punt return later in the first quarter that nearly buried them.

The 49ers have perhaps the fastest man in the NFL in Ted Ginn Jr. returning kicks and punts. Ginn nor the rest of the 49ers special teams have done anything exceptional so far; the Panthers need to keep it that way.

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