Originally written on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 11/20/14

The Carolina Panthers open the 2012 regular season with an NFC South divisional rival as they travel to Tampa Bay to play the Buccaneers on Sunday. This marks the first time the two teams have opened the season against each other.

Because of the Democratic National Convention taking place in Charlotte, the Panthers began preparations for the game on Tuesday in Bradenton, FL at the IMG campus.

NFL Rookie of the Year, Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton, said he has really improved in the off-season.

Quarterback Cam Newton, last season’s offensive rookie of the year, heads a potent offense that finished fifth in the League in points, and most of his offensive teammates also return.

Guard Travelle Wharton and tight end Jeremy Shockey have left the team, but the team is very confident that second-round draft pick Amini Silatolu (replacing Wharton) and former back-up tight end Greg Olson will pick up the slack.  Offseason acquisition fullback Mike Tolbert also replaces Shockey.

In addition to Newton’s terrific season (accounting for 35 touchdowns – 21 scoring passes and an NFL quarterback record 14 rushing touchdowns), veteran wide receiver Steve Smith returns. Smith has moved to the top 36 career receivers in receptions and receiving yardage, caught 79 balls and had 1,394 receiving yards in 2011. Smith will look to extend his streak of 75 consecutive games with a reception, which began in 2006. He has played in 151 career games and with six games played, he will rank second in team history, passing Brad Hoover and Muhsin Muhammad.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the author of a full page ad that ran in the Charlotte Observer in July declaring the Panthers will win the Super Bowl this year, heads the offensive line that returns four of five starters.

Coach Ron Rivera feels this year’s team will be better than last year when the team was the first to have three 700 yard rushers and saw their passing game jump from 32nd in 2010 to 13th last year. “I think we have the potential to be better. Cam is now in his second season and has gone through offseason OTA’s for the first time. We have good continuity throughout our starters and some young players who I believe are prepared to take another step up.”

Rivera is speaking of receiver Brandon LaFell, who had an excellent preseason, tackle Byron Bell and the big fella, Newton. LaFell, now in his third season, started the final six games last year and Bell started 12 as a rookie after moving into the lineup due to injuries.

On the defensive side of the ball, there are more changes, but good ones. Linebacker Jon Beason returns after missing the entire 2011 season with a torn Achilles suffered in the opening game at Arizona. He missed much of the preseason with a pulled hamstring, however. Thomas Davis, who has been attempting to come back from three ACL surgeries after missing the last 2-1/2 years, played in only one preseason game (against the New York Jets), but looked good. Rookie Luke Kuechly, the team’s No. 1 draft choice, had a strong preseason and will be a starter at linebacker on Sunday.

After backing up All-Pro safety Ed Reed in Baltimore, newcomer Haruki Nakamura will also begin the season as a starter. One of five potential new defensive starters, he was impressive in the preseason and knows what it takes to get to the championship game, as he did with the Ravens. Other potential starters are defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker James Anderson, cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Charles Godfrey, all back from last year, will try to improve upon the 28th ranked defense (in yards allowed) last year.

“We saw some good signs of progress in the preseason and now have to  transfer that into the regular season while continuing to improve,” said Rivera.

Rookie punter Brad Nortman on his first day of training camp back in July

One area the Panthers worked during the offseason to improve upon were the special teams.  Carolina drafted its first punter, Brad Nortman, and he averaged 48.2 yards per kick in the preseason. Placekicker Justin Medlock, with just one NFL game under his belt, but with three solid years of CFL experience behind him, beat out incumbent veteran Olindo Mare for the position. His strong leg was the difference. Kick returner Joe Adams, is a quick (and fast) player who has the potential to change games in a hurry. These three specialists should give the Cats a big improvement over last season’s dreadful special teams.

The Panthers and Bucs have met 23 times previously, with the Panthers holding a 14-9 edge. The game will mark head coach Greg Schiano’s debut in the NFL. He is the ninth head coach in Buccaneers’ history, and was the head coach for Rutgers University for the past 12 seasons.

Every season is a fresh start, but…on December 24, 2011, the Panthers came of age, beating Tampa Bay 48-16 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. This year every team begins anew, but on paper, the Panthers look to be much stronger.  The Panthers made two new additions to their roster as the team reached the NFL’s 53-man active roster limit for the regular season.

The team acquired safety Colin Jones from the San Francisco 49ers on Friday, August 31, in exchange for an undisclosed draft choice and signed defensive tackle Dwan Edwards on Sunday, Sept. 2.

Jones is a second-year player from TCU, who played 13 games for the 49ers last season, seeing action primarily on special teams (a glaring weakness on the Panthers part last year).

Edwards is in his ninth NFL season, having played the last two in Buffalo, where he started 24 of 27 games for the Bills. His career began in Baltimore where he played six seasons for the Ravens after being selected by the team in the second round (51st overall) in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Having seen this team play four (okay, three…we all know the fourth preseason game is a joke) games and having watched many practices, the Panthers are going to be much improved from last year. The only problem…their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons are also improved. The Saints, in fact, just got a whole lot better, as their previously-suspended players were granted amnesty and all of them, including All-Pro Jonathan Vilma, are eligible to play beginning Sunday. The Panthers improved to 6-10 last season (they had nowhere to go but up) and Cam Newton’s level of play shocked nearly everyone. Newton is poised to be even better this season, and has the weapons he needs to lead this team to the top. Looking at their schedule when it first came out, I said the team would win 10 or 11 games. I am sticking with 10 wins this season, but even that could be a stretch. The opener is one of those games they must win, because the next three games (New Orleans, New York Giants, at Atlanta) could all be losses. Their fate in the NFC South Division could be sealed by the end of September, but, should they win two of those three games, the Panthers will have put their divisional rivals on notice…as well as the rest of the league.

I am confident the Panthers will prevail, 24-10, in the opener.

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