The Carolina Panthers lost 12-7 in a hard fought battle to the Seattle Seahawks last week, but it's time to move on to the next opponent and try to get a win on the road. This week we get to take a look at an AFC team as the Panthers will travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills. These two teams last saw each other in 2009 when Carolina beat themselves with four turnovers in an ugly 20-9 loss at Bank of America Stadium. That was before Ron Rivera took over as head coach of the Panthers, so this will be the first time he's faced the Bills as a head coach. Bills head coach Doug Marrone is in his first season at the helm, so this is obviously his first matchup against the Panthers.
Hopefully things won't turn out the same way they did back in 2009, because the Panthers need to win this game. This game could be the game that sets the tone for the rest of the season. A loss to Buffalo could mean a loss of confidence for the Panthers and could very well put them at 0-3 heading into their bye week .
Let's take a look at five keys to victory in Sunday's game against the Bills.
Avoid stupid mistakes
The Panthers made too many dumb mistakes last week against Seattle that eventually cost them the game. We've discussed them ad nauseam, but if Carolina wants to leave Orchard Park with a win, they need to avoid making inexcusable errors. It really is that simple. Frank Alexander needs to avoid getting ejected for fighting because it's vital that we have a solid defensive end rotation in the 4th quarter, and Armond Smith needs to stop running out of bounds on punt coverage because field position is going to be a key part of this game. We don't need to give the Bills any more yards than they will earn on their own merit.
Open up the downfield passing game
I'm not going to beat up on Mike Shula here, but this week is the prime opportunity to take some shots down the field. Buffalo is missing players in their secondary as Jairus Byrd (foot), Ron Brooks (foot) and Stephon Gilmore (wrist) are all listed on their Thursday injury report.
However, the shots downfield can't just be vertical routes to Steve Smith. Domenik Hixon, Armanti Edwards, Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell need to be involved for the Panthers to have success in the deep passing game.
While the offense needs to take some chances with deep passes downfield, the deep passing attack doesn't need to be the focal point of the offense. Which brings me to my next point...
Don't abandon the run
This may sound funny given the proclivities of our offensive coordinator, but the Panthers can't stop running the ball if the Bills have success stopping them early in the game. Buffalo has a stout defensive front, but the Panthers need to keep running the ball early to set up the play action pass to take advantage of their weakened secondary.
While sticking with the run doesn't mean to run it straight up the middle in the face of an 8 or 9 man box on 3rd and 11, the Panthers can't afford to start throwing 30 yard bombs every down just because they're unable to get 5-6 yards per carry in the 2nd quarter.
Unless of course those 30 yard bombs are for touchdowns. Then it's totally cool to keep doing it.
Win the turnover battle
This has the potential to make it into every Friday Five because it's that important. The Panthers need to force more turnovers than they give up. Teams that win the turnover battle are generally successful, and this week will be no different. If Carolina can force EJ Manuel to make mistakes that lead to turnovers and avoid making costly errors when they have the football, then they have a very good chance of leaving Buffalo with their first win of the season.
Stop telling us what you're going to do, and just do it
We've been hearing for two years now that the Panthers are going to be a team that will "twist the knife" when they have teams down, and so far we've yet to see that in action. What we've seen is a team that plays not to lose instead of a team that plays to win. Well, we're tired of talk and ready for action.
I'm not saying that Rivera should start coaching like he's playing Madden, but what he should do is stop telling us how he doesn't like that we're too conservative and start coaching a more aggressive game plan. If we have the football with 30 seconds to go in the first half and three time outs, there's little reason why we shouldn't at least try to get into field goal range. Graham Gano's range is roughly 55 yards, and with Cam Newton at quarterback it's entirely possible for the offense to get to the opponent's 35 yard line to try and get more points before halftime.
Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I think a lot of Panthers fans would agree with me when I say that I would much rather see them go for it and not make it than see them not even try at all. If they go for it and fail, at least we can take pride in the fact that we tried to win the game instead of loathing yet another instance where an overly-conservative approach took away our chances of success.
Hopefully this is the week that Rivera starts to show us that famous "twist the knife" approach, because if he doesn't it won't be too much longer before we're forced to revoke his BAMF card.
That's it for this week's Friday Five. If the Panthers can follow this road map against the Bills on Sunday, they should be able to claim their first victory and get back to .500 for the first time since Week 2 of last season.