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What to watch: Panthers vs. Titans


According to the NFL schedule, the Carolina Panthers will kick off the second half of the season Sunday when the Tennessee Titans visit Bank of America Stadium.

According to Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, it's more like kicking off the first half.

"On Monday, we talked about this as the beginning of the season," Rivera said. "The reason I said that is because if you think about it, we've probably gone through what equals up to going through OTAs, mini-camps, training camps and preseason. Now we have an opportunity to start fresh and get going."

With a 2-6 record, the Panthers probably wish they could literally wipe the slate clean, but they have been close to victory in every game and don't see any reason why they can't turn their record upside-down.

"Our approach each week is going to be 1-0, 1-0, 1-0," Rivera said. "If we can get the roll going that we're talking about and get things going in the right direction, the last half of the season could be interesting."

The Titans (4-4) start their second half in better standing. They're in second place in the AFC South, though they dropped three of their last four games.

"I'm thinking they're going to come in hungry, but I'm not really worried about that," Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said. "I'm worried about us and what we've got to do."

Here's a look at what the Panthers do have to do to start the second…err…first half of the season on a positive note.


KEEP JOHNSON IN CHECK: After three seasons of record-setting play, Tennessee running back Chris Johnson has come back to Earth this season.

The Panthers, however, still think the world of him.

"You can never sleep on a guy like that," Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart said. "Speed kills, and he's a great running back."

With Johnson struggling, the Titans actually rank last in the NFL in rushing offense. But Johnson is a touchdown waiting to happen, and the Panthers rank 27th against the run.

"He's definitely explosive. He's definitely dangerous," Panthers defensive tackle Sione Fua said. "It's going to be a challenge for the D-line and really the front seven. We have to be disciplined, stay in our gaps and just come out and knock out the run."

NEWTON'S SECONDARY CONCERNS: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has rarely looked like a rookie this season, but Rivera warned that the Titans are capable of exploiting inexperience.

"This may be one of the more difficult matchups he has," Rivera said. "Tennessee plays different types of coverages – man, zone and different variations of zone. It's a little bit different."

Newton recognizes the challenge, but he also had extra time to prepare with the bye week.

"Their defense has some playmakers, especially in the secondary," Newton said. "But I do feel like there are opportunities that we can capitalize on."


SMITH'S SECONDARY CONCERNS: Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith ranks second in the NFL with 918 receiving yards and leads receivers with 20 or more receptions with 20.0 yards per catch.

Sunday, the 5-8 Smith will face a 5-10 cornerback that often plays over his head.

Cortland Finnegan has returned an interception for a touchdown each of the previous three seasons, but he is still looking for his first of 2011. The never-shy Finnegan picked off five passes in both 2008 and 2009 but just has three total interceptions since the beginning of the 2010 season.

Like Smith, however, he's always a threat.

!FOR KICKS: When we last saw Panthers kicker Olindo Mare, he had his head down after missing a 31-yard field goal to force overtime two weeks ago against Minnesota.

He could get a chance for redemption Sunday.

The game could well be close (haven't virtually all Carolina's games been close?), so it could again come down to a kick.

Mare's miss wasn't the norm, so you know he'd love a chance to right his rare wrong.

SUNDAY SALUTE: The Panthers will celebrate Military Appreciation Day, with hundreds of military personnel in attendance courtesy of the team.

The 82nd Airborne Division Chorus from Fort Bragg will perform the national anthem and perform at halftime. The pregame festivities will include a flyover by F-15E Strike Eagles.

Also, USO-North Carolina will accept cash donations at each Bank of America Stadium gate to support its programs that benefit local military personnel and their families.

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