Here are my five takes on Sunday's game between the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium:
1. Cam Newton is going to play much better than he did in the Panthers' season-opening win against San Francisco. Predictably, Newton gave an up-and-down performance in the Panthers' 23-3 victory. His recovery from shoulder surgery limited him to only one series during the preseason, and the rust showed through the first half against the 49ers. Newton looked much sharper in the second half.
The Bills' secondary that played so well in twice intercepting Josh McCown is going to have a tougher time with Newton's impressive combination of power and athleticism. Newton's decisions on where to go with the ball were mostly good in the San Francisco game, but his delivery was slow at times. Still, his arm is far more powerful than McCown's, something the Bills' defenders will have to respect in deep coverage.
The Panthers' top two receivers, Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, were targeted only seven times and combined for a mere three catches for 45 yards last Sunday (sound familiar?). But the Bills' secondary can't go to sleep on slot receiver Russell Shepard, who adjusted beautifully to an audible by Newton and then made an impressive spin move on a 40-yard touchdown.
Tight end Greg Olsen also wasn't a factor against the 49ers, but remains Newton's dominant go-to and will require safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer to be every bit as impactful as they were last Sunday.
2. As strong as the Bills' run defense played against the Jets, it's going to have to play even better against the Panthers. How much better can you get than holding the Jets' top to rushers, Matt Forte and Bilal Powell, to a combined 38 yards? Not to diminish the effort of the Bills' defensive front, but that was the Jets and their offensive line doesn't get much in the way of a strong push. Forte also is nearing the end of an illustrious career -- if he isn't already there.
The Panthers have one of the NFL's more dynamic young playmakers in rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, who can be equally productive as a runner and a receiver. Their offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, didn't hesitate to get McCaffrey rolling against the 49ers; the rookie finished with 18 touches for 82 yards. And don't forget about Jonathan Stewart, who began the season with 65 yards on 18 carries.
The Panthers concentrated on preserving veteran center Ryan Kalil during the preseason, and he looked fresh in their opener as a result. His brother, Matt, did a nice job at tackle in both pass protection and run-blocking. The Bills' D-linemen and linebackers dominated the line of scrimmage last Sunday. Don't count on it happening two weeks in a row. And if, as Sean McDermott insisted, Marcell Dareus "played a good game" against the Jets, he'll need to be "beyond great" Sunday.
3. The Bills' running game is more than capable of back-to-back strong rushing performances. When you've led the NFL in that category the past two years, such output is hardly a fluke.
But expecting the Bills to surpass or even duplicate the 190 yards they had on the ground against the Jets is expecting too much. Yes, they were going against a formidable defensive-line duo of Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams. But the Panthers are far more accomplished within their front seven.
Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis give them as solid a linebacker combination as any in the league. They combined for 14 tackles, and were particularly stout in multiple fourth-down stops.
The Bills have to be careful not to overwork LeSean McCoy, whose 27 touches for 159 yards against the Jets is a heavy load -- especially for the first game of the season.
4. Tyrod Taylor has to get rid of the ball more quickly when working from the pocket, and the Bills need to move him around more while increasing his targets to the receivers. It's fine that Taylor completed the bulk of his passes to McCoy and tight end Charles Clay, but he's going to need to do more against a defense that can generate strong pressure while also providing solid coverage.
The Bills have to get Jordan Matthews and Zay Jones -- who had seven targets and three receptions between them -- far more involved in the offense to take some pressure off McCoy and actually help make him and Clay more effective.
Veteran defensive lineman Julius Peppers can still be a force, and Star Lotulelei is going to keep the Bills' pass blockers occupied the entire game. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and O-line coach Juan Castillo also must make sure they account for end Wes Horton, who had a strip-sack against the Niners' Brian Hoyer, and outside linebacker Shaq Thompson, who also dumped Hoyer and hit him another time.
5. Can the student, Sean McDermott, school the teacher, Ron Rivera? McDermott spent the past six seasons as the Panthers' defensive coordinator, so he knows plenty about the strengths and weaknesses of several of their key players on that side of the ball and no doubt is game-planning to exploit them. But McDermott also knows Rivera's coaching tendencies and will look to use those to his advantage as well.
McDermott actually could have the edge in the coaching matchup, because Rivera doesn't have as much detailed knowledge about the Bills' players as McDermott has of the Panthers' roster. Rivera earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron" for his willingness to take chances.
However, that might backfire in a game where the Bills will try to use a power-oriented offense to control the clock and keep the score tight while minimizing Newton's opportunities to make big plays with his passing arm.