CHARLOTTE – Moral victories are no longer an option.
Coming off a two-win season, many Panthers fans were thrilled to see their team simply in position to possibly win their first two games of 2011.
Close won't be good enough for anybody this Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"We've got to win – 0-3 would be a terrible start, but 1-2 gives you a chance," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "If we can get a win, we're still in this thing."
The Panthers are alone in last place in the NFC South, but the other three teams are tied for first at 1-1, and only after Atlanta and Tampa Bay rallied from significant deficits to get their first victories last week.
Next up are the Jaguars, a 1-1 team coming off a 32-3 loss at the New York Jets and coming in with a rookie quarterback at the helm for the first time. This qualifies as a must-win, especially with the Panthers sporting the NFL's toughest schedule and three 2010 playoff teams to follow right behind Jacksonville.
If the Panthers are to turn some positive signs into an actual victory instead of a moral one, here are some things that need to happen.
YOUNG GUNS: Both teams will be entrusting their offense to rookie quarterbacks. Cam Newton has more than handled the assignment for the Panthers through two games, and now the Panthers defense hopes to stop Blaine Gabbert from doing the same for the Jaguars in his first NFL start.
"Anytime you're facing a quarterback that hasn't played in the league that long, you've got to try to confuse them, try to make them make bad decisions," said Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, the team's sack leader.
Gabbert will try to provide a spark for the only passing offense in the NFL yet to throw a touchdown. While the Panthers rank second in the NFL with 403.5 passing yards per game, the Jaguars are 30th with 251 yards total.
The Panthers have been susceptible to big passing plays so far this season. They can't let Gabbert continue that early trend.
CARRYING THE LOAD: While Gabbert would like to awaken the passing game, his best bet might be handing the ball off to running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
Thanks in large part to "MJD," the Jaguars are averaging 12 more yards per game on the ground than they are through the air.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Jones-Drew reminds him of a player he faced during his playing days with the Bears.
"Barry Sanders," Rivera said. "You weren't going to tackle Barry with one guy, and he's the same way. He's a stout, physical runner with a low-to-the-ground center of gravity and great ability to make cuts with tremendous cutback vision.
"It's most certainly going to be a defensive team effort. He is a great running back."
ON THE OTHER HAND: The Panthers have a pair of 1,000-yard backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but through two games they're yet to total 100 yards between them.
Williams and Stewart have 74 yards on 30 carries. Newton leads the team with 71 yards on 18 attempts.
The slow start for the running game has been more than made up for by the strong start for the passing game, but the Panthers likely will be looking for more balance in this one.
At the same time, the Panthers are going to take what the defense gives them. If the Jaguars stack the box and force Newton to beat them with his right arm, Carolina would be content using its running backs to run out the clock on a victory.
SEEING RED: One place the running game could be crucial is in the red zone, the one area where the offense has come up short so far.
Carolina is in the bottom quarter of the NFL in converting drives inside the opponent's 20 into touchdowns.
"Everything down in the red zone is magnified," offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "The windows are tighter to throw the ball, and there are more defenders close to the ball when you try to run it. Penalties and mental mistakes are magnified as well.
"Timing and precision is much more important down there. We'll keep making improvements and start getting the ball in the end zone."
FOOT BALL: Even though the Panthers know they need to cash in with more touchdowns, this game could come down to a field goal.
If it does, Carolina has faith in veteran Olindo Mare, who is yet to miss a kick in his first season with the Panthers.
While Mare entered the season having made 88 percent of his field goals over the previous three seasons, Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee made just 73 percent over the same time frame. Scobee, however, is 4-for-4 this season, and his leg knows no limits: He beat the Indianapolis Colts with a 59-yard boot last season.