The 2014 season is expected to be a promising one for a Carolina Panthers squad coming off a 12-win campaign.
The Panthers will no longer play in obscurity and kick off the new season against the NFC South-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. It will be the second time in three years Carolina opens the season at Tampa Bay.
Carolina has lost five straight season openers, last winning back in 2008, but this year is supposed to be different. Superstar quarterback Cam Newton has another year under his belt and is currently bothered by a rib injury that is not expected to keep him off the field.
According to the team's website, Newton wore a larger flak jacket at practice to give his ribs extra protection and is in the process of picking one that fits comfortably.
"He's sore, but it's not like it was when it first happened," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. "He moved around a lot better. I'm excited about it."
It would probably take a seven nation army to hold Newton back from Week 1. He played in two of the team's four preseason games and also underwent ankle surgery this offseason. Now it's the rib issue that has raised some flags, but not for Newton.
"My body feels better. It's been a great process," Newton said. "There was soreness like any other injury. It's obvious that my ribs were hurting, but I'm moving forward and trying to stay positive and optimistic about this whole process. It's given me an even greater focus on healing my ankle at the same time."
Newton has passed for 11,299 yards and rushed for 2,032 yards in his first three seasons, and is the only player in NFL history to pass for at least 10,000 yards and rush for 2,000 yards in his first three years. He hopes a new-look offensive line will keep him upright, as All-Pro center Ryan Kalil is the only starter in the same position.
"I wish we had more repetitions as a unit, but that wasn't the case and the players have adapted well," said Rivera.
The reigning NFC South-champion Panthers ended a four-year playoff drought last season and lost to San Francisco in the postseason. After beginning the season 1-3, the Panthers finished with a 12-4 record and won eight consecutive games at one point. Because of their success, the Panthers will play nine games against teams that finished the year with a .500 or better record, including six against opponents who made the playoffs in 2013.
Tampa Bay will unveil a new head coach and starting quarterback, as longtime Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith takes over on the sidelines. Smith spent nine seasons as head coach of the Bears (2004-12) and was named the 10th head coach in Bucs' history in January.
Smith led Chicago to an 81-63 (.563) regular season record, while going 3-3 in the postseason. Under Smith, the Bears recorded three division titles, two NFC Championship Game appearances and won the 2006 NFC title, which propelled Chicago to its first Super Bowl appearance in 21 years.
Smith wants to establish a winning tradition at home and it starts Sunday.
"It's critical for our fans," said Smith. "Its been a while since they've really been happy with the product that they've seen out at Raymond James. We've been working to do something about that and we hope that they would come out to see. We've talked a lot about what we're going to do, we would hope that they would come out and give us a chance. Once we get our fans in the stands, we've got to play good football, it's as simple as that."
Josh McCown played under Smith for a few years in Chicago and has earned the trust in his head coach. McCown, a member of the Panthers from 2008-2011, was signed by Tampa Bay in March as an unrestricted free agent and has played in 58 career games (38 starts), completing 794-of-1,337 passes for 8,827 yards, 50 touchdowns and 45 interceptions.
The Buccaneers, who will be wearing new uniforms for the 2014 season, haven't reached the playoffs since 2007 and went 4-12 in 2013. They are expected to play better in 2014, but have to compete in a tough division with Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans.
Tampa Bay has lost six of its last eight season openers and lost both meetings with the Panthers a season ago. New guard Logan Mankins talked about facing Carolina's fearsome defense.
"It's a big challenge. Carolina has got a very good defensive front. Good front four, good linebackers," said Mankins, who was recently traded to Tampa Bay from New England. "We'll have our hands full so we'll be studying all week trying to get ready for those guys."
The Panthers hold a 16-11 advantage in the all-time series and will host the Buccaneers on Dec. 14. The rivals have alternated sweeping the season series each of the last five seasons.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The best way to stop the Panthers is holding Newton in check. With a new look across the offensive line, the Bucs could do just that. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is ready to get the season started and is excited Week 1 is finally here.
"Offseason sucks. Camp sucks. But gameday is lovely. Game week is lovely. You've got to love it," McCoy exclaimed. "You've got to love everything that goes into preparation because it's here now."
McCoy said the reason why Newton had so much success against them last season was because "he got comfortable."
"He's not a guy you want to get comfortable because then he gives you those highlight plays ... making those Barry Sanders-type cuts, making people look bad," McCoy added. "So we don't want him to get comfortable."
Newton passed for 484 yards and four TDs with two interceptions against Tampa Bay a year ago. He has a new weapon in rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who led the Panthers in receiving with 12 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown during the preseason.
Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery are also new to Carolina's receiving corps. Longtime Panthers wideout Steve Smith is now with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Bucs' line has a tough task ahead in protecting McCown from Carolina beasts Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. The two missed most of the preseason with separate injuries, as Johnson was bothered by a hamstring injury and Hardy had a shoulder issue.
"(Charles) probably could have played against Pittsburgh, but we didn't want to push him out there. He's ready to roll," Rivera said. "Greg is fine. There doesn't seem to be an issue."
Hardy (39 tackles, 15 sacks) is a stud and a force up front. He disrupts at the line and has recorded at least 11 sacks in each of the previous two seasons. Hardy, though, was arrested on domestic violence charges in May and could be suspended sometime in the near future. Hardy tied a franchise record with 15 sacks in 2013, so the Panthers placed the franchise tag on him at a cost of $13.1 million this season.
Johnson (25 tackles, 11 sacks) has registered 11 or more sacks three times in the past four seasons. The Bucs also have to watch out for Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly (156 tackles, 2 sacks) had four interceptions last season and has played in all 16 games his first two seasons in the league. The former Boston College star is one of the top middle linebackers in the game and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season.
"When you can put him in the middle, it really makes your defense pretty salty, which they have and he can do it all," Smith said of Kuechly. "There was a reason why he was Defensive Player of the Year and it will be a big challenge for our guys."
Behind a successful QB is a strong running game. Bucs RB Doug Martin appeared in only six games last season because of injury and ran for just 456 yards and one touchdown, one year after a successful rookie campaign in which he recorded 1,454 yards and 11 TDs. In two career games against the Panthers, the "Muscle Hamster" owns 233 yards on the ground with no scores.
Bucs veteran receiver Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans expect great things under the new regime in Tampa. As long as McCown can get them the ball, that shouldn't be a problem. McCown had three 300-yard passing games in five starts (8 games) last season when Jay Cutler went down. He had 11 TD passes to just one interception in those limited starts.
The Panthers shouldn't be too concerned with Newton's ribs; he's big and athletic enough to absorb the pain and keep the chains moving. He does, however, have some new faces to throw to and could show signs of rust early on. The Panthers still have running back DeAngelo Williams to rely on when things get rough, which they most certainly will at Raymond James Stadium, where hungry fans will gather to watch the birth of a new regime under Smith. It will be close throughout with the Panthers pulling away at the end for their first win in Week 1 since John Fox roamed the sidelines.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 21, Buccaneers 16