Can the Panthers actually run the ball enough to make a difference?
That's what I keep wondering as the kickoff approaches for Carolina's season opener.
The Panthers' run game in the four exhibitions was underwhelming. It says something when most of their memorable runs were made by Fozzy Whittaker, the fourth-string back.
Ultimately, I think the team that runs for the most yardage Sunday will win. Tampa Bay has Doug Martin back, and if you've forgotten how good he was as a rookie running back in 2012, you will be quickly reminded.
As for the Panthers, I think Jonathan Stewart has the best chance of being Carolina's go-to back. Stewart has shown some shades of 2009 in his brief appearances, but the question, as always, is whether he can stay healthy. DeAngelo Williams has been very ineffectual in the exhibitions and is now 31, but the franchise's all-time rushing leader has also been counted out before.
-- I will only be surprised Sunday if rookie Kelvin Benjamin doesn't have a big day. Benjamin is the clear No.1 wide receiver target no matter who is throwing the ball for Carolina, but I'm just not sure other NFL teams realize how good he is yet since he hasn't played in a real contest.
-- For some reason this week, I kept thinking of the Democratic National Convention.
It was two years ago that the DNC came to Charlotte, which meant the Panthers went to Tampa early for the season opener. They trained there for almost a week before playing the Buccaneers -- and then still laid an egg, falling behind 13-0 at halftime and losing 16-10 to a mediocre Tampa Bay team that ultimately went 7-9 (just like the Panthers did that year). Carolina ran terribly in that game -- 13 carries, 10 yards.
-- Now you know I am more optimistic about the 2014 Panthers than most. I picked them to go 10-6, while my colleague Tom Sorensen went for 8-8 and most national publications went lower than that.
Tampa Bay went 4-12 last season. Carolina went 12-4. Yet the Buccaneers are a slight favorite in this game.
Has the personnel really changed that much? I don't think so. So despite DNC deja vu telling me not to do this, here's my pick: