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Panthers vs Browns: Three story lines to watch for Week 1

The Panthers are trying to weave varied threads into a single win this week, and no, Baker’s joust with the windmills of Cleveland aren’t the most important this week.

Carolina Panthers Training Camp Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

It is finally Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season. The Carolina Panthers are hosting the Cleveland Browns at Bank of America Stadium to kick off what needs to be a strong campaign for head coach Matt Rhule and his staff. Coming off of two disappointing seasons that have featured turmoil and injury in near equal measure, the Panthers finally have a quarterback that anybody else might have wanted in Baker Mayfield. Whether or not he is the guy is moot at this point. He’s the best quarterback Rhule and company have been able to put on the field during the tenure in the NFL. Improvement is their only option.

That improvement—and whether or not it manifests—is going to be the theme of our observations for the season, but this Week 1 match-up features a handful of shorter term storylines that are equally as important. Here are your three things to watch for the Carolina Panthers Week 1 game:

Fuel for the fire

Mayfield is known as a player who plays best with a chip on his shoulder from slights real or imagined. Fortunately for Panthers fans, we get to see him in a highly motivated match-up this week against his former team. The Browns jettisoned him in favor of pursuing a shiny object at quarterback and the breakup appears to have left hard feelings on both sides.

This game is going to establish a baseline for how well Mayfield fits in with Rhule and new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s style. It is going to give us an idea of just how true his reputation is. It is also going to be just one point—a starting point, really—in what will eventually be a data set informing our opinions of the 2022 season.

I’m watching to see how hot he starts the game, how he maintains whatever degree of fire he has, and how he reacts to any pressure the Browns can manufacture. This is very much a get-to-know-you game for Mayfield and Panthers fans. Both expectations going in and reactions coming out ought to be tempered.

Comeback player(s) of the year

High on the list of last year’s woes were the early season ending injuries to Christian McCaffrey and Jaycee Horn. McCaffrey was everything to the Panthers offense and his absence was the beginning of their end. Horn, a rookie, looked the part of the All-Pro, but we never got to see that for an extended time. Either has the chance to return and catalyze a transformation in this Panthers team from the middling squad of yesteryear into something altogether more dangerous. No, I won’t so go so far as to suggest contender status.

That said, the Panthers are far deeper in the secondary than they are at players that can carry an entire offense the way McCaffrey can. His return could be more important for this team than any vim and vigor that Mayfield can bring for this game and most certainly would be so for a complete season.

Whether or not he can stay healthy is a whole other and entirely unanswerable question at this point. My suggestion to fans is to enjoy him while he’s here and get mad at his usage rates once they become relevant again. To be clear I will not be able to follow my own advice, but I do stand by it being good advice in this specific context.

The kicker

If there is one position that can make or break the day for both offense and defense then it is the kicker. Eddy Piñeiro might have the opportunity to score points when the offense falters and pin the Browns deep after a Panthers score. He will also have the opportunity to keep the Panthers off the score board and give the Browns suboptimal field position. He might also appear on the injury report with a hip injury while I’m writing, further underscoring the following paragraph.

This is the true wildcard for tomorrow’s game and one of any number of reasons why I won’t bet on sports. You can tell that I’m not alone in my uncertainty, though perhaps driven by different metrics, by just looking at the points spread or tomorrow’s game. Favored at -1.5 to start this week means the Panthers were expected to win by 1.5 points by the odds makers over at DraftKings Sportsbook. That is less than a field goal. That is less than the traditional value of home field advantage, equal to the three points of a field goal. It is to say that this game is as close to a coin flip as odds makers are willing to take bets on.

The difference in the metaphorical heads or tails here could well be how consistent whoever is kicking for the Panthers can be. Right now, that may well still be Piñeiro. Punter Johnny Hekker is the next man up on the roster, and a laundry list of free agent castoffs from camps around the league are behind him.