Carolina Panthers preseason 2013: The importance of game 3

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason is mostly meaningless, but you can't underestimate the importance of the third game.

The Carolina Panthers face the Baltimore Ravens tonight in their third preseason game of 2013. It's an opportunity for the team to show they're not as lackluster as they appeared in the team's first two outings, where they barely won against a Chicago Bears team missing some starters, and suffered a terrible loss against the Philadelphia Eagles -- which was much worse than the scoreboard reflected. Thursday night reflects an opportunity to prove that Mike Shula's offense can work, and that the offensive line can protect Cam Newton.

Even if you're predisposed to write off preseason as frivolity, there's one statistic that might change your mind: The Carolina Panthers have only had one winning season in team history after losing the third preseason game. This happened back in 1996 when the Panthers lost to the Buffalo Bills, and finished the season 12-4.

This long-established history is either foreshadowing, or a wet blanket -- depending on your perspective. A win doesn't guarantee success, as Carolina have won the third preseason game four times, and still finished on the wrong side of .500.

The importance of tonight's game can't be understated -- this might as well be Ron Rivera's Super Bowl. He needs to show, and be reassured that his team are prepared for the 2013 season. If they take the field in Baltimore and get obliterated then the chances of him being in Carolina in 2014 are slim, let alone making it to the bye week.

Cam Newton told the media yesterday that Thursday's game will be a chance to open the playbook and be tested. He needs to trust in the offensive players who have bailed him out in tight situations. It would be nice to see him lean on Brandon LaFell more, whose been targeted just four times in preseason. More importantly, the offensive line need to show they are capable after two weeks of wildly inconsistent performance.

Everything starts tonight in Baltimore, and history shows that if the Panthers lose there's only a 5.5% chance they'll have a good year.

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