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Panthers vs Jets: Week 1 NFL preview

Sam Darnold and the Carolina Panthers will host his former team in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season when the New York Jets come to Charlotte.

For two teams without any real playoff expectations, this has been a highly anticipated matchup. It could have to do with rookie No. 2 pick Zach Wilson making his regular-season debut. Below, we preview this Panthers vs Jets matchup.

Panthers vs Jets: What you kneed to know

Find out where the Jets and Panthers stand in our Week 1 NFL power rankings

Sam Darnold vs Zach Wilson

panthers vs jets preview: zach wilson
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In three seasons with the Jets, Darnold was downright atrocious. The former top-five pick tallied 45 touchdowns against 39 interceptions in 38 starts while putting the ball on the turf another 20 times. The USC product is out to prove that he was a victim of circumstance in Jersey.

Meanwhile, Wilson is coming off a solid preseason performance for the Jets. The onus is on him to help turn things around under first-year head coach Robert Saleh.

  • Darnold’s time to shine: The 24-year-old quarterback goes up against a Jets defense that yielded nearly 29 points per game a season ago. While Saleh has revamped this side of the ball, the loss of free-agent signing Carl Lawson for the season could play a role. In reality, this is a plus-level matchup for Darnold.
  • Mr. Franchise: Expectations might be a bit muted for Wilson as a rookie. His team is in the initial stages of a rebuild. It will be all about the young quarterback progressing week in, week out. The good news here is that Wilson is taking on a Panthers defense that yielded 28 passing touchdowns against seven interceptions a season ago.

Advantage: New York Jets

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Christian McCaffrey vs New York Jets run defense

panthers vs jets preview: christian mccaffrey
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

McCaffrey is back on the field for the first time since November 8 of last year after dealing with an injury-plagued 2020 campaign. He did not take to the field for the preseason, and will likely be on a pitch count in this matchup.

As for the Jets run defense, they added a ton of reinforcements for the defensive-minded Saleh. That included former New Orleans Saints star Sheldon Rankins.

  • Relying on Christian: Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady noted recently that they plan on using McCaffrey a bit differently in 2021. The idea will be to preserve him for the end of games to an extent. Prior to going down to injury last season, the NFL’s highest-paid running back averaged 25 touches in his previous 19 games.
  • Building the foundation: As we saw in San Francisco, Saleh’s defense is all predicated on stopping the run and forcing the quarterback into obvious passing situations. It’s not going to be easy against one of the best running backs in the NFL. But if the Jets are able to do this, it will lead to some mistakes on the part of Sam Darnold.

Advantage: Carolina Panthers

Matt Rhule vs Robert Saleh

panthers vs jets: robert saleh
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Rhule’s first season in the NFL did not go too swimmingly. The innovative offensive mind led Carolina to a 5-11 record and the ninth-worst scoring offense in the NFL. Simply put, that’s not going to cut it.

On the other hand, Saleh netted his first head-coaching job after a tremendous four-year run under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. He’s respected around the NFL and is looking to start this new era in his career off strong.

  • Matt Rhule has the weapons: While the jury is still out on Darnold, Carolina seemingly has the weapons at the skill positions to succeed. D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. represent a solid trio at wide receiver. Add in McCaffrey and rookie Chuba Hubbard in the backfield, and Rhule should have some fun this season.
  • Starting out strong in Jersey: To say that the Jets have holes on defense would be a major understatement. We’re looking at a half-dozen new starters from last season’s disastrous unit. It is going to take Saleh time to build this defense in his mold. Whether that happens Week 1 against Carolina remains to be seen.

Advantage: New York Jets

Bottom line: This Panthers vs Jets matchup should be rather interesting if for nothing else than the quarterback position and two young head coaches going up against one another. In the end, we’re going to go with New York to pull off the mild road upset.