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Carolina Panthers

What to watch: Panthers vs. Redskins


Through six games, the Panthers already have played – and lost to – four of the six teams that represented the NFC in the playoffs last season.

Sunday, they'll kick off a three-game homestand against teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2010.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is optimistic, but not because of how the schedule sets up.

"I've got the mentality that every game is winnable," Newton said. "Everybody on this team has to play with an edge, play with a chip on their shoulder that says, 'Look, I don't care who we play, when that ball is kicked off, we're looking to win.'"

At the same time, Newton realizes that every game can turn into a lost cause.

"There are no homecoming games in this league," he said. "Every week you have to bring everything you've got – and more. The margin of error in this league is so different."

The Panthers are off to their second straight 1-5 start, but unlike last season, they've been in every game to the end. If they're to start turning near-wins into wins against the Redskins (3-2), here are some keys.

HOME SWEET HOME: Newton has heard how great some opposing stadiums are. Now he wants to hear more of the same about Bank of America Stadium.

"I'm a rookie, and people say to me, 'Hey, when we go there, it's going to be loud. It's going to be this and that,'" Newton said. "Well, that's what I envision for this city, and it's nothing that's far out of reach. The No. 1 thing with that is you've got to win.

"We need to start playing with that swagger, start playing with that mentality – especially at Bank of America Stadium."

The Panthers are 62-61 in regular season games played at Bank of America Stadium (and were 4-4 at Clemson's Memorial Stadium in 1995). They're 54-77 in regular season road games.

They've had a winning home record eight times and a winning road record just four times, yet the difference between their home and road record has been negligible at times. From 2000-2009, they were 37-35 at home, 35-37 on the road.

Newton thinks that should change – starting Sunday.

SACK MASTERS: In order for it to change at the expense of the Redskins, Newton must negotiate a defense that ranks second in the NFL with 3.4 sacks per game.

"They bring the house, the kitchen sink – they're coming," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It's not going to be an easy task."

But thanks to solid work by the offensive line and Newton's ability to side-step oncoming rushers, the Panthers are allowing just 1.7 sacks per game – sixth lowest in the league.

Something's gotta give.


MARQUEE MATCHUP: When Newton does feel the heat, expect him to look the way of Smith.

That also means he'll be throwing in the direction of cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

Smith ranks second in the NFL with 675 receiving yards. Hall is a key cog in a defense that has allowed just four touchdown passes this season – the second-stingiest mark in the NFL.

Smith and Hall have a complicated history. Close friends at one point, a war of words eventually led to Hall coming unglued during a 2007 matchup when he was with the Falcons, drawing a trio of penalties versus Smith that sparked a Carolina comeback.

"That stuff's in the past," Smith said. "I'm just going to go out there and play ball."


BECK IN THE GAME: The Redskins are on a two-game slide, prompting head coach Mike Shanahan to change quarterbacks.

John Beck, a fifth-year pro out of BYU starting for the first time since his rookie year, reminds Panthers head coach Ron Rivera of one of Shanahan's quarterbacks in Denver.

"Jake Plummer," Rivera said. "They're very similar type of athlete. He has a good, strong arm and can throw the ball on the run. That could be a problem."

Beck brought a spark in relief of Rex Grossman in last Sunday's loss to the Eagles but hasn't yet shown if he can do it for a full game, let alone longer.

It's safe to say the Panthers will come after him whenever the situation is right, and the winner of that battle could well be the winner of the game.

FIELD POSITION: Redskins return man Brandon Banks, a North Carolina native in his second NFL season, is always a threat to take it the distance. He had a kickoff return for a touchdown as a rookie and has three punt returns of 20-plus yards this season.

The Panthers have yielded a pair of punt returns for touchdowns already this season, clearly a factor in Jason Baker ranking 35th in the NFL with a 29.7-yard net punting average.

Those are just a couple of factors in the field position battle, an always important game-within-the-game that the Panthers need to win – one way or the other – against the Redskins.

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