After a record-setting rookie year, quarterback Cam Newton will try to avoid the sophomore jinx. (US Presswire)

Panthers vs. Buccaneers -- Week 1

Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. (grass, outdoors)

When: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET (Fox)

Spread: Panthers by 3

Forecast: Scattered thunderstorms; projected kickoff temperature: mid-80s

2011 records: Panthers (6-10); Buccaneers (4-12)

Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Dec. 24, 2011: Panthers 48, Buccaneers 16; Dec. 4, 2011: Panthers 38, Buccaneers 19. Series record: Panthers hold a 14-9 edge.

What matters: Last year, the Carolina Panthers caught the Buccaneers during their season-ending hot streak. The team won four of their final six games, and with QB Cam Newton getting his first full offseason after a record-setting rookie year, the Panthers are considered a darkhorse playoff contender in 2012. One reason for optimism is Carolina’s upgraded defense. With first-round draft pick LB Luke Kuechly joining a healthy Jon Beason, the Panthers may be able to avoid trading touchdowns like they did much of last season.  

Who matters: Other than Kuechly, the Panthers’ most important rookie is Amini Silatolu. The second-round pick out of Division II Midwestern State was installed as the starter at LG almost immediately and has been flawless in the preseason replacing Travelle Wharton, who left as a free agent. A healthy, effective line is the first component in Newton avoiding a sophomore jinx.

Key matchups: The Panthers signed DT Dwan Edwards the day after final cuts, and the former Bills interior lineman will be facing Pro Bowl G Carl Nicks in his first game as a Panther. The improvement in Carolina’s secondary and linebackers won’t matter if Edwards and NG Ron Edwards can’t get pressure up the middle.

Injuries of note: RB Jonathan Stewart hurt his ankle in the Panthers’ third preseason game and hasn’t practiced since. Coach Ron Rivera is holding out hope that he’ll play, but it’s looking more like RB DeAngelo Williams will get the bulk of the carries. WR Steve Smith missed time with a foot infection, but he’s been practicing all week, as has LB Jon Beason.

Inside stuff: LB Jordan Senn was one of the defensive stars of the preseason. He led the team with 18 tackles and 15 solo tackles. He was second on the Panthers with 11 special teams tackles last season, and Rivera said that’s where he’ll spend most of his time this season as well.

Connections: Panthers QB coach Mike Shula played and coached for Tampa Bay in the late 1980s. Buccaneers DT Corey Irvin was a Panthers draft pick in 2009, and DT Gary Gibson played for the Panthers in 2007 and 2008. The biggest connection is that the Tampa area has been Carolina’s home away from home for the past week, as the Panthers vacated Charlotte in advance of the Democratic National Convention.

Stat you should know: The Panthers allowed 377.6 yards per game last year, 28th in the NFL. They improved that to 318 yards per game during the preseason.

Record watch: WR Steve Smith’s next catch will be the 700th of his career. Assuming he plays Sunday, it will be his 152nd career game, tying Brad Hoover for third-most in Panthers' history. The most passing yards in a game by a Panthers quarterback against Tampa is Jake Delhomme’s 277 in 2003. It’s one of the few team records Newton didn’t get around to breaking last season.

Bulletin board quote:  “You’ll ignore what you hear and break through ANYTHING that stands in your way. Because you see what’s at the end of this … Victory. One hundred-percent, sterling silver victory. The Lombardi trophy. And it reads:  CAROLINA PANTHERS -- SUPER BOWL XLVII CHAMPIONS!” --The end of C Ryan Kalil’s full-page ad in the Charlotte newspaper, guaranteeing a Super Bowl win this year.  

Looking ahead: The opener against Tampa Bay is the most winnable game in a tough opening month of the season for Carolina. The Panthers play all three division opponents and the defending Super Bowl champions in their first four weeks.

Prediction: Panthers 35, Buccaneers 10

For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Carolina Panthers from blogger Shawn Krest, follow @CBSSportsNFLCAR.