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Panthers fans hope it is - not - what it is

We now return to "The Carolina Panthers Story," Chapter 17:

Having returned from the dark summer of the lockout when players got to spend May and June on the beach rather than in mini-camps and something called OTAs, the Panthers arrived at the first week of the 2011 regular season filled with optimism, or at least as much optimism as a team that went 2-14 a season ago can pack into the luggage section of its charter flight to Arizona for the opener.

Last season was uglier than Maryland's football helmets. This season needs to be different.

New coach Ron Rivera is popular for several reasons, primarily for having never lost a regular-season game as head coach, having Cam Newton's phone number and almost never saying "it is what it is."

Newton is now the city's biggest star unless Bobcats owner Michael Jordan is in town or Dale Jr. is home. With his smile and style, Newton has the opportunity to be a transformative player in the franchise's history, especially if he's really good with fantasy football numbers.

The Panthers have promised to throw the ball often and have, so far anyway, shown an aversion to draw plays, especially on third-and-long. If that holds true, it will be a victory for the fans, if no one else.

Considering there were only two victories last year, you can practically feel the momentum already.

Rivera knows it won't be easy. There's a mountain to climb, he said, and he wasn't talking about Chimney Rock. This is a big mountain, a huge one, Otah-esque.

Every climb starts somewhere. This one starts in Glendale, Ariz.

CAROLINA at ARIZONA: It's tempting to pick the Panthers this weekend - surprisingly tempting. But that's all it is. Cardinals 27, Panthers 13.

ATLANTA at CHICAGO: Sports Illustrated has picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. Who am I to argue? Falcons 32, Bears 21.

INDIANAPOLIS at HOUSTON: Definition of irony - now Peyton Manning is a pain in his own neck. Texans 28, Colts 20.

BUFFALO at KANSAS CITY: It's never too early for a who cares game of the week. Chiefs 30, Bills 13.

TENNESSEE at JACKSONVILLE: The Titans begin life after coach Jeff Fisher. That's like Kim without Khloe Kardashian. The Jags begin life without quarterback David Garrard. That's like life with of the many McCowns and Blaine Gabbert. Jags 27, Titans 17.

CINCINNATI at CLEVELAND: Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said this year's Bengals should be better than last year's Bengals, who went 4-12. He better be right. Browns 24, Bengals 20.

PHILADELPHIA at ST. LOUIS: Is Sam Bradford last year's Cam Newton? Does that even make sense? Dream Team Eagles 31, Rams 27.

PITTSBURGH at BALTIMORE: Beautiful ... in a tire iron to the shins kind of way. Ravens 20, Steelers 16.

DETROIT at TAMPA BAY: I'm not going to make fun of the Lions this season because I'm afraid Ndamukong Suh might tackle me. Bucs 20, Lions 17.

MINNESOTA at SAN DIEGO: If they had their druthers (who says that now?), the Vikings would probably rather save this road trip for December when the snow's piling up on the Metrdome roof again. Chargers 41, Vikings 17.

NEW YORK GIANTS at WASHINGTON: If the answer is either John Beck or Rex Grossman, how good a question can it be? Giants 26, Redskins 23.

SEATTLE at SAN FRANCISCO: There's a chance the Seahawks could turn into the 2010 Panthers. Here's the first step. 49ers 33, Seahawks 14.

DALLAS at NEW YORK JETS: I love the Jets' swagger, but there's something about Tony Romo I like, too. Could be a big year for Jerry's guys. Cowboys 24, Jets 20.

NEW ENGLAND at MIAMI: Tom Terrific takes on South Beach. One of them is genuinely cool. The other one tries too hard. The Brady Bunch 29, Dolphins 17.

OAKLAND at DENVER: It is what it is in the Mile High City. Broncos 31, Raiders 21.

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