We had only two occasions to celebrate a win in 2010, but one of those came against the Arizona Cardinals in a December 19th game where Jonathan Stewart finished with 137 yards on the ground and Jimmy Clausen had by far the best game of his pro career. Now, just nine months later both the Panthers and Cardinals have gestated and are ready to give birth to their brand new teams (eww... sometimes I gross myself out).
The Carolina Panthers offense will be featuring a new QB, new WRs, new starting TE... the list goes on. In fact, from that game on 12/19/10 to now there are only four players on offense slated to start both games (Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil and Brandon LaFell) other than that every single position has a new player at it.
X-Factor: QB Cam Newton
As it will occur for much of the year this Sunday's x-factor will be rookie QB Cam Newton. Despite an up and down pre-season Newton separated himself from the QB competition by not making costly mistakes and running the offensive as effectively as the other two QBs. Last season the Cardinals didn't really see a mobile QB, so it will be curious to see how their 3-4 deals with Cam Newton's elusiveness. That being said, Newton is a rookie and will likely make mistakes on Sunday... it just comes with the territory. Meanwhile, the Cardinals pass rush should not be underestimated as they totaled 10 sacks during the pre-season; Joey Porter, Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett will be an early test for Cam, and I think week one will show the difference between pre-season and the regular season.
More after the jump
Panthers run offense vs. Cardinals run defense
It can't be understated what the return of Jeff Otah means to the Carolina Panthers offensive line in the run game. When healthy he's a true road grader, and even with MacBern likely starting at RG the line will be better than the combo the Cardinals saw in 2010 with Schwartz and Williams on the right side of the line. Furthermore, the Cards will be seeing DeAngelo Williams, who was unable to play in the 2010 game due to injury. Even though their run defense has improved in the offseason the Panthers have a much healthier offensive line and in the end this could be a fairly lopsided element of the game.
Panthers pass offense vs. Cardinals pass defense
This is the hardest element of the game to predict. If there's one area Cam has absolutely struggled with in the pre-season it was getting the ball to his wide receivers with regularity. I have no doubt Steve Smith can, and will get the better of rookie Patrick Peterson, but it's whether Newton can deliver the ball to Smitty that will determine that matchup. In terms of the #2 and #3 receiver it's a wash- their CBs aren't stellar while our WRs aren't stellar. The final aspect to this matchup is Greg Olsen, who will be used extensively throughout the game.
I picked the six games that represented a good cross section of elite pass catching tight ends the Cardinals saw in 2010, they were Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, Zach Miller, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates. Against these elite TEs the Cardinals allowed on average 51.5 yard receiving and just under a TD a game. Bascially, they were outmatched as a whole.
So in the end this comes down to whether Cam Newton can get the ball out effectively, because across all receivers the Panthers have the edge, but like I mentioned before he will struggle at times which effects this matchup.
Offensively the Panthers match up okay with the Cardinals. Check back tomorrow when I break down the Panthers defense vs. the Cardinals potent offense.