The battle of the jungle cats will take place this weekend, and there will be a lot of eyes on this game, which features rookie quarterbacks Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert facing off.
Carolina is trying to dig itself out of the NFC South cellar after suffering numerous injuries, and Jacksonville is trying to keep up with Houston in the AFC South.
There's no better place to start than to talk about the pair of young quarterbacks. That's what the attention is going to be on, so why not get that discussion out of the way right now.
Cam Newton has been spectacular through two games, so far exceeding ever expectation placed on him by the media. If he continues his pace—although it's unlikely—he will break Dan Marino's record for most passing yards in a season. Again, that's highly improbable, but it serves to put his performance in perspective.
However, this hasn't come without growing pains for the rookie quarterback. Green Bay's opportunistic defense picked off Newton three times as he tried to carry the Panthers to a comeback victory. He still has some work to do, but you couldn't ask for a better beginning to the Cam Newton era.
Gabbert's start in Jacksonville has been much different. He was hyped as the most accurate quarterback of this rookie class, but in the preseason, he was far from that. He was erratic and didn't show enough to beat out Luke McCown.
Two games into the season, Jacksonville fans are still shaking their heads over the release of the team's starting quarterback David Garrard. Garrard was not an elite quarterback for the Jaguars by any means, but he had a solid track record and respect around the league. Luke McCown is not a guy you release your starting quarterback for.
This game will either go sharply in one direction or the other for Gabbert. I don't foresee him playing a consistent and conservative game. The Jaguars want to see what they have in Gabbert, and that will mean they will take him for a test drive to see how well he's come along—how completely he understands the playbook, how quickly he's making his reads, his timing with receivers, etc.
My gut tells me Gabbert will struggle. This doesn't reflect my long-term expectations of him, but I feel he's more of a project than any quarterback taken in the first round, contrary to what most scouts believed. He was not a great college quarterback, and it will take time to turn his talent into a winner and a productive player.
Carolina's secondary has remained healthy for the most part, and after taking on two dangerous passing teams, this will seem like a day off to them. The signing of Darius Butler looks well warranted. He has managed to play well in nickel packages, and the entire secondary has been great for about 58 minutes in each game.
The lapses in the mental part of the game have killed them, and two blown coverages have resulted in 14 points for their opponents in both Week 1 and Week 2. Those have been the main factor in the Panthers' losses, so if the big plays can be eliminated, there is no reason the Panthers can't keep the Jaguars' offense in check.
Jacksonville cannot get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing, which puts them at a huge advantage. Newton has been very calm in the face of the blitz, and the Jags' don't have the talent in the secondary to keep up with the Panthers if Newton is comfortable in the pocket.
There have been rumblings for the Panthers to get a run game going, but I don't believe this is the game to force the run. Let Newton get out to a lead first and then pound the rock. The Jaguars are boasting a revamped group of linebackers and have been successful at stuffing the run through two games.
The Jaguars, on the other hand, must give Maurice Jones-Drew some opportunities to keep them in the game and pick up some first downs. The Panthers' front seven is banged up, and a pair of rookie defensive tackles, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, have been great at times and disappointing the next play. We'll see if they get off to a good start. If they do, the Panthers have this game wrapped up—that's how important these two are to the success of this team.
Prediction: Panthers 27 Jaguars 10
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