Todd Gurley and the Rams face the Panthers to open defense of their NFC title
After dealing with the Super Bowl LIII loss to the New England Patriots for the last seven months, the Los Angeles Rams will have an opportunity to start a new chapter in their team's history as they begin the 2019 season against the Carolina Panthers.
Last season, the Rams finished with a 13-3 record as they controversially won the NFC Championship Game over the New Orleans Saints. However, they would lose the Super Bowl to the Patriots two weeks later. The Rams will be looking to return to the big game for the second consecutive year.
As for the Panthers, the 2018 season was a tale of two different parts. In their first eight games, the Carolina went 6-2 record and was seemingly on the way to the playoffs, if not a possible division title. However, quarterback Cam Newton suffered a shoulder injury and was placed on injured reserve as the Panthers stumbled down the stretch, finishing 7-9.
Sunday will be the first time since the 2016 season the Rams and Panthers have played each other. Carolina has faced the defending NFC champion every year since 2008 and has won three of the last four such matchups.
Los Angeles at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Los Angeles -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Rams offense healthy once again
Although the Rams were able to play in the Super Bowl, doesn't mean there weren't a few casualties along the way. Running back Todd Gurley had a mysterious knee injury that caused him to miss the final two regular-season games. While he returned for the playoffs, Gurley clearly wasn't his usual self as Los Angeles relied more on C.J. Anderson in games against the Saints and the Patriots.
Last year, Gurley rushed for 1,251 yards and 17 touchdowns in 14 games. He also caught 59 passes for 580 yards and four scores. Having Gurley healthy will take a lot of pressure of quarterback Jared Goff.
Not only is Gurley healthy but receiver Cooper Kupp is back after an ACL tear prematurely ended his campaign. He had 40 catches for 566 receiving yards and six touchdowns in eight games before suffering the injury. Having Kupp along with Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods should once again make the Rams a lethal offense.
2. Cam Newton's shoulder
As mentioned earlier, Newton suffered an untimely shoulder injury that ultimately landed him on injured reserve with two games left. He underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, the second time in three years he had to have such a procedure done.
Throughout training camp and the preseason, the Panthers have been cautious in regards to how much work Newton received. He did play in Carolina's third preseason game against the Patriots but left the game after spraining his ankle. The injury healed quickly as Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said there would be no limitations because of Newton's health.
"No reason to," Rivera said. "He's in great shape. He's right where we need him to be. He's thrown the ball very well. He's been very sharp, as has the team as a whole."
Statistically, Newton was on pace to have better numbers than his 2015 MVP season when he helped Carolina reach Super Bowl 50. Over the first eight games in 2018, Newton had 1,893 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions. More importantly, Newton completed 67.9 percent of his passes in 2018, which was the best of his eight-year career.
If Newton can regain the same form before his injury, the Panthers should once again be playoff contenders in the NFC.
3. Aaron Donald
Los Angeles made improvements to their defense during the offseason through the additions of Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews. However, Donald is still not only the best player on that side of the ball but arguably the NFL's best regardless of position.
All Donald did last season was record 20.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as he was claimed his second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. There's no reason to believe Donald can't make it three in a row as he one of the few players who is a threat to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5.
On Sunday, Donald's job is simple – make Newton uncomfortable and force him to make bad decisions. If he can do that, the Rams will be in a better position to win this game.
For the Rams, Sunday's game will be an opportunity to get a seven-month lousy taste out of their mouth. For the Panthers, they will be looking to start 1-0 and get Cam Newton and their offense off to a good start. As in most games, this contest will likely be decided in the trenches.
During the offseason, the Panthers signed Matt Paradis to upgrade their center position. This week, Paradis will be tested going against Aaron Donald and the Rams. It is close to impossible to stop Donald, but Paradis will need to find a way to contain him and prevent him from making game-changing plays.
Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey will look to continue what they started last year, and they should be able to at home. Expect a lot of quick passes to combat the Rams pass rush.
The Panthers will need to slow down Todd Gurley to prevent him from getting going. The more Jared Goff passes the better chance Carolina will have at causing a turnover.
Sunday should be a close game between two teams who could make the playoffs. Los Angeles might be the favorites, but Carolina has an excellent chance to win, especially with home-field advantage at Bank of America Stadium. It could all come down to a late field goal.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Rams 24
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.