I doubt anyone circled the Jaguars game on the Panthers' calendar and saw it as the game that it all turns around, as the game that makes them champions.
But, it does stand as their likeliest place in their schedule to grab a win early.
Carolina's not on its game right now. It doesn't do the John Fox things well yet. But it does put the ball in the air, and it wants the opponent to do the same. So far, Cam Newton has rapidly exceeded expectations, even with continuing flaws. It's hard to imagine anyone with realistic expectations having Newton being able to get out of the team's way at this point in his career, but despite inefficiency and inconsistency, he's shortening the field.
On the other side, Blaine Gabbert seems to have been "the other choice". Many reports suggest AJ Green, the top rated receiver in the draft, was Carolina's second choice, but realistically it seemed they were locked into a quarterback at that spot. Gabbert had similar issues as Newton - spread offense, inexperience, inconsistency. He's a less risky prospect on paper, but he hasn't shown he has "it", that magical intangible that Newton apparently oozes.
Gabbert's first start probably won't mean much to the outside world, or Carolina. Even symbolically, it's a bit of a stretch outside of speculation. But it's good motivation for Gabbert himself, who was a third stringer one month ago and now faces an NFL defense for the first time. The Jaguars would've definitely had a chance with David Garrard, now cut; now, like Carolina, they're in full rebuild.
Behind Gabbert, they have Maurice Jones-Drew. This is trouble - Arizona and Green Bay didn't have backs like this and did well. MJD is a breakaway player. There's nothing to say here other than stay in your gaps, and stay disciplined. He'll get his. Jones-Drew caught 34 balls last year, but anticipate more today, including numerous screens. Deji Karim is the backup, an uneventful 2010 6th rounder who isn't good inside.
The other threats are TEs Marcedes Lewis, who brings a physical speed, and change of pace FB Greg Jones. Jones hasn't become the Michael Turner some anticipated, and he isn't a receiver threat (which limits his exposure), but he does get to be a threat on counters and fakes, and is a load at fullback.
At receiver, it's been hard to see what they have; Mike Sims-Walker has taken his 5 catches for 40 yards a game elsewhere. Mike Thomas, at 5'8, 190, was their leading receiver last year, and returns. Jason Hill isn't much, and he's banged up, but Kassim Osgood is inactive and hurt also. There shouldn't be many problems matching up outside, but the blitzes have to be good inside to not allow Lewis to run wild up the seam. Carolina has to go without Thomas Davis (season, dammit) and Charles Godfrey in coverage, making life tougher. It will be interesting to see how Thomas Williams and Jordan Pugh do in their respective replacement roles.
Look for Gabbert to dump it off all day, attempting to get into a rhythm. Outside of vet Brad Meester at center, the Jags' OL has 3 years time in the league and a little more than a year's playing experience. Without much deep threat to consider, expect a good bit of single high safety and pressure from Carolina.
Jacksonville comes in with their top two rushers - high dollar Aaron Kampmann and recent signee Matt Roth - inactive. Austen Lane, a small college sophomore, starts; he has 0 career sacks. The roster is littered with defensive free agents - MLB Paul Posluszny, Kampmann, Roth, FS Dawan Landry, WLB Clint Session. With their rushers out, underwhelming interior penetrator Tyson Alualu won't likely impact.
At corner, Rashean Mathis has mellowed from his playmaking days in the middle of the last decade, and now seems to hang his hat more on longevity. He can be beaten deep, but he gets help. The younger Derek Cox, at 6'1, 200, is more a matchup guy, a little more physical. He's fighting a rib injury but did practice in full this Wednesday.
This is a bland, cover 2/3 team, the type that was run early in the 2000s when the John Fox/Marvin Lewis schemes worked best on tendency rather than power or scheme. I'm not sure, especially with rushers on the bench, Del Rio has what it takes to create pressure on Newton, and Newton has undoubtedly been better without pressure. That's what this may come down to - Newton having time to throw deep, where he's very good, and then seeing if the Carolina running game can somehow show up to bring it home while their defense attempts to make Gabbert falter under pressure.