Just a few months ago, a game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers would have been a quarterback matchup between Jimmy Clausen and David Garrard. Now, Sunday's contest between the teams at Bank of America Stadium will be a little something else.
Gone from the Panthers' starting slot is the former Notre Dame ace Clausen, replaced by a rookie Heisman Trophy-winning national championship quarterback from Auburn who's already made great strides toward chopping down a tree-full of doubters he'd acquired on the way out of college.
But this week in Carolina, Cam Newton is actually the veteran.
Unlike Newton, who was unsurprisingly anointed the Panthers' starter in training camp, fellow rookie and former University of Missouri gunslinger Blaine Gabbert ended the preseason as the No. 2 to the veteran Garrard on the Jacksonville depth chart at quarterback.
Then, five days before the team's season opener, a 16-14 win over Tennessee, Garrard was released.
Journeyman Luke McCown minded the store for two inglorious weeks once the regular season began, but had the rug pulled from under him Wednesday when Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio announced the apprenticeship was over and the youngster Gabbert was ready.
"He's got a good swagger about him," Jaguars guard Uche Nwaneri said of Gabbert. "He knows what the challenge is going to be. I think he'll thrive against the challenge. He was drafted high and he's itching for an opportunity to get in and make an impact, and now he's getting an opportunity to do that."
Jacksonville averaged 9.5 points and 263 yards in two games -- 28th and 30th in the league, respectively -- under McCown, who threw for just 59 yards and was intercepted four times in last Sunday's 32-3 loss to the New York Jets.
Gabbert threw for 3,186 yards and 16 touchdowns at Missouri in 2010, while running for 232 yards and five more scores. In 31 career college games, he compiled 6,822 yards -- the fourth-most in school history -- while his 40 touchdown passes are third among Tiger players and his career 132.59 efficiency rating places him second.
"You're always going to have butterflies," said Gabbert, who was taken by Jacksonville with the 10th overall selection in last April's draft, about his first professional start. "When you're doing something you love, that you care so much about and you put so much time and effort in throughout the week, you're going to have butterflies. I think something's wrong if you don't have them. That just means the adrenaline's going and you're ready to go."
For Del Rio, Sunday's game is an initial chance to validate the decision on Garrard.
"He's a big, strong kid whose really been kind of a star quarterback his whole life," he said of Gabbert. "We think he has a chance to be a franchise-type quarterback. He's getting a chance now to be our starting quarterback and become that guy."
Newton has played that franchise role and more in two weeks as a pro, becoming the first player in NFL history with back-to-back 400-yard passing games to begin his career. As a result, his 854 pass yards are the most ever by a player in his first two games.
But not everyone's ecstatic.
"We get down inside the 15 [yard line] and we throw it every time," Panthers' offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "You know I'd like to have 50 percent of those be runs. And I don't think [offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski] is trusting us to get it done right now.
"I don't think anybody in this organization wants us to rush for under 100 and throw for over 400 every week, especially without points to back it up. We've got to do better on the ground."
Newton's completed 52-of-83 passes for three touchdowns and four interceptions for the Panthers, who've been competitive in a road loss at Arizona to begin the season and in a home meeting with defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay., which rallied for a 30-23 victory last week. He was fitted with a walking boot after injuring his right ankle against the Packers, but was out of it by Wednesday while claiming the ankle felt "luscious."
"We've just got to get it right. We're going to get it right," Newton said. "But I'm not the person to just sit up here and say, 'Well, we have next time.' I'm not that type of person. I want it right now and I want to get it right now."
These two teams, which both entered the NFL as expansion franchises in 1995, have met four times previously in a regular-season setting, with the Jaguars prevailing in three of those occasions. Carolina's lone win did take place in Charlotte, however, a 24-23 verdict in 2003. Jacksonville posted a 22-20 road victory over the Panthers in 1999 and also took the most recent matchup, cruising to a 37-6 home triumph in 2007.
Del Rio, who served as Carolina's defensive coordinator in 2002 before taking over as the Jaguars' head coach the following season, is 1-1 all-time against the Panthers. Carolina first-year sideline boss Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker like Del Rio, will be opposing both Jacksonville and his counterpart for the first time in his current capacity.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging 92.5 rushing yards per game this season and aims for a third straight game with 100-plus yards on the ground against NFC foes, going for 135 and 113 in those two meetings. He has three 100-yard rushing outings in his past five road games as well. Wide receiver Mike Thomas has two touchdowns in his past three against the NFC, while tight end Marcedes Lewis, expected to play after missing last Sunday's loss with a calf, has 17 career touchdown catches and needs just two more to surpass Reggie Williams for the third-most in franchise history behind Jimmy Smith (67) and Keenan McCardell (30).
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson aims for his fifth game in a row against an AFC foe with a sack this week. He has six sacks in his past four matchups versus an AFC opponent, along with 5 1/2 sacks in his past six games at home, and will be aiming for a seventh home game in a row with at least a half-sack. James Anderson and Thomas Davis lead the Carolina linebackers with 12 tackles apiece, but Davis was lost for the season after suffering his third right ACL tear in 23 months against the Packers. Free safety Sherrod Martin has 10 tackles in the opening two games of his third NFL season.
Jacksonville is 30th in scoring (9.5 ppg) and 28th in total yardage (263.0 ppg), while Carolina is 26th in both scoring defense (29.0 ppg) and total defense (406.5 ppg).
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
In his past five games at home with 15-plus attempts, Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart has 624 rushing yards (124.8 per game) and has surpassed the century in all five of those contests. When he has 15 or more attempts for his career, the team is 14-3. In his past nine games against AFC foes, fellow running back DeAngelo Williams has rushed for 834 yards (92.7 per game) and five touchdowns. Wide receiver Steve Smith leads the NFL with 334 receiving yards and has 45 catches for 686 yards (85.8 per game) along with five touchdowns in his past eight home games versus AFC opponents. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell had a touchdown catch last week and tight end Jeremy Shockey had seven catches for 82 yards in his last meeting with Jacksonville, which came while with the New York Giants in 2006. Tight end Greg Olsen had three catches for 52 yards and a score in his last game against the Jaguars, in 2008 while with Chicago.
Jacksonville middle linebacker Paul Posluszny leads the team with 12 tackles. Cornerback Rashean Mathis posted his franchise-record 30th career interception last week and also had a pick in Jacksonville's most recent game at Carolina. Nickel back William Middleton recorded his first career interception last week, while defensive end Matt Roth aims for a third straight game with a sack.
The Panthers are 18th in scoring (22.0 ppg) and second in total yardage (476.0 ppg). Jacksonville is 16th in scoring defense (23.0 ppg) and fifth in yards allowed (287.5 ppg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
How well Gabbert handles himself in his debut will have a large role in determining whether the Jaguars shake off last week's 32-3 throttling by the Jets.
Newton has made it look easy in terms of yards, but has also made rookie mistakes that have yielded turnovers. Limiting those errors will be a decisive factor for the Panthers.
Newton's emergence has come largely at the expense of running backs DeAngelo Williams and Stewart. If the Panthers lean heavily on the ground game on Sunday, they could help take the onus off the young quarterback.
The No. 1 pick against the No. 10 pick. Two glamour boy quarterbacks. But though it's not the sexy storyline, it's more likely that this game will be decided by the team that can run and keep the other from doing so. That swings the pendulum toward the Jaguars, who've allowed just 3.2 yards on 45 carries in two games, compared to Carolina's 4.8 yards allowed on the ground.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jaguars 20, Panthers 17