Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers will take the field at Bank of America and win their first game of the 2011 season today.
1. Rookie QB Matchup
Thanks to his record-setting passing performances in the first two games, Cam Newton is the early leader for NFL Rookie of the Year honors. Newton will start today opposite Jaguars' rookie quarterback and fellow first-rounder, Blaine Gabbert, who is making his first NFL start.
Newton gets the edge in this matchup due to a slight advantage in game experience and a better cast of passing targets led by Steve Smith and tight ends, Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen.
2. Resurgent Running Game
The Panthers' running attack, ranked 29th, has been shoddy the first two weeks. The duo dubbed Double Trouble, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are each averaging just 2.5 yards per carry and with 71 yards on the ground. Newton has toted the ball for nearly half of the team's 145 rushing yards.
Carolina's offensive line has been better at pass protection than run blocking the first two games, but Pro Bowlers Ryan Khalil and Jordan Gross will motivate their fellow lineman to create better running lanes against the Jaguars' defense.
The Panthers will also need better lead blocking from the fullback position if they are to outplay the Jags' star runner, Maurice Jones-Drew.
3. Motivated Defense
Who will win today's game?
Let's face it, the Panthers' defense has had a rough couple of weeks to start the season. The interior line is too small, the secondary can't cover receivers (see: Munnerlyn, Captain) and its strongest unit, the linebacker corps, has been decimated by season-ending injuries to Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.
However, the Panthers defense has two things going for it this week and they are head coach Ron Rivera and the Jaguars' offense. The defense showed significant Week 2 improvement against the Packers and Rivera is a defensive guru who will find a way to make this unit play better throughout the season.
As for the Jaguars' 30th ranked scoring offense, they will likely improve upon their 9.5 PPG average, but the Panthers will hold their opponent to under 20 points for the first time this season.
4. Panthers Home Crowd
Bank of America Stadium isn't known for being the loudest, rowdiest or most intimidating venue in the NFL, but the fans in Charlotte are planning to ratchet up their behavior big time for this one.
Carolina fans will be geeked up for this one, expecting Newton and Rivera to win their first game as Panthers, and the stadium will be packed with a vocal pro-Carolina crowd fueled by a diet of the ABC's of tailgating in the Queen City—Ale, Bojangles and Cornhole.
The Panthers will experience an advantage they have not often known today and that is the home crowd.
5. They Are Due
Specifically, Ron Rivera is due for his first win as an NFL head coach. Cam Newton is due to win his first game as an NFL quarterback. Panthers fans are due for a breakout performance after last season's miserable 2-14 showing.
Jerry Richardson is due for some vindication after blowing up the team and coaching staff in the 2010 offseason. And the team's mascot, Sir Purr, is due for something to, well, purr about.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Jaguars 17