The Bengals (2-0) have been among the early-season surprises in the NFL, winning their first two games by identical 34-23 scores following a 2017 season in which they started slow en route to a 7-9 record.
With consecutive away games at Carolina and Atlanta, Cincinnati has a chance to stamp itself as a legitimate contender, but the team is dealing with some critical injuries as it seeks its first 3-0 start since winning eight in a row to open the 2015 season.
The Bengals will have to overcome the absence of second-year running back Joe Mixon, who is expected to be sidelined two-to-four weeks after undergoing a surgical procedure following a knee injury in a 34-23 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 13.
Mixon finished with 84 yards rushing on 21 carries in the win over Baltimore. He ran for 95 yards on 17 carries in a season-opening victory over Indianapolis.
Giovani Bernard will be thrust into the starter's role in Mixon's absence. Although Bernard has rushed for only 25 yards on seven carries in the first two games, he has been a reliable two-way threat throughout his tenure with Cincinnati.
A second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Bernard rushed for at least 680 yards in each of his first three seasons. He had 458 yards and two rushing touchdowns in 2017. Bernard was limited in Wednesday's practice, but was a full participant on Thursday.
"Gio is such a smart player," Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton told reporters of Bernard. "He understands every aspect of the position. He knows what we are doing in the run game, pass game, protections and all of it. I definitely have a comfort level with him back there."
A revamped offensive line has been integral in the fast start, although it could be without rookie starting center Billy Price (foot). Cincinnati did not yield a sack for the first time in 22 games in its last win and yielded only two sacks in the opener.
"Says a lot about us as a unit," Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart said after beating the Ravens. "Our coaching, our preparation, how far we can go. The ceiling we have going forward everybody doing the things they are coached to do, believing in each other. The sky is the limit."
Carolina (1-1) will be attempting to rebound from a 31-24 loss at Atlanta in which quarterback Cam Newton was forced to air it out 45 times. The Panthers will be trying to find some consistency on offense while plugging a defense that surrendered 442 yards to the Falcons, including 170 on the ground.
"The things that served us well in the past ... stopping the run, getting after the quarterback, did not serve us well," Carolina defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. "We have to play ahead of the play."
The Panthers, who pitched a shutout for nearly 3 1/2 quarters in a season-opening 16-8 win over Dallas, again will be reliant on the multiple talents of Newton, who has thrown for 496 yards and three touchdowns while leading the team with 100 yards rushing.
"He's made a lot of good decisions these first two games," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera told reporters.
Newton lost one of his favorite targets, veteran tight end Greg Olsen, to injury in Week 1 and the Panthers need to find another option in the passing game. Running back Christian McCaffrey has 20 receptions through the first two games, including a franchise record-tying 14 against Atlanta.
Rookie wide receiver D.J. Moore, the Panthers' first-round pick out of Maryland, has only one reception through the first two games but it went for a 51-yard touchdown against Atlanta. It was the longest touchdown play for Carolina since 2006.
Carolina had a streak of 21 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher snapped against the Falcons, but its defensive focus will have to be on Bengals wideout A.J. Green, who already has 11 catches for 161 yards and four touchdowns.
The Panthers have won six in a row at home, matching Minnesota and New England for the longest active streak in the NFL.
"We've just got to keep feeding off the energy," Newton said of the atmosphere. "It's just like anything else, it's a living creature. Our fans are alive and when you do certain things to get them hyped, they can be a huge asset for us and that's what we're going to expect throughout this whole year."