Five things to watch: 49ers vs. Panthers

Carolina heads home eyeing 14th straight win in Bank of America Stadium against San Francisco.

Mark J. Rebilas—
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) does his Superman pose as he celebrates his second quarter touchdown with running back Jonathan Stewart (28) against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Sept. 8. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s only Week 2, but the Panthers already have as many losses in the regular season as they did during the entire 2015 season. Heading home on Sunday is the perfect place to get right, especially considering Carolina won all eight games last season in Charlotte.Plenty of positives and negatives came out of the season opener in Denver. Kelvin Benjamin looked great, but the running game struggled. Cam Newton thrived in the first half, but was rocked in the helmet one too many times — without penalty on most occasions.There’s a lot to unpack before the Panthers take on the 49ers in a game they should win, as they are nearly two-touchdown favorites. Before the game kicks off Sunday at 1 p.m. on FOX, here are five things to watch for the Week 2 showdown.Protecting CamNewton was sacked three times and was struck by five separate helmet-to-helmet hits. San Francisco’s front seven is one of the team’s biggest strengths, with NaVorro Bowman and Arik Armstead leading the way.Rather than sulking on the head shots, Newton is focused on Sunday.”My job is to win football games. My job is not to lobby for my health,” Newton said Wednesday. “I feel as if there’s times I’ve been taking hits, they haven’t been called. But that’s understandable. And sometimes I’ve been hit and they’ve been called. So I can’t just point the finger and say, ‘I haven’t gotten calls,’ because I have.”Don’t expect as much pressure to be applied to Newton as Denver’s ridiculously good defense, but there will still be adversity for the offensive line. Protect Newton, and this offense can get rolling against the Niners’ secondary.Benjamin’s scoring touchKelvin Benjamin picked up exactly where he left off his rookie season. Even against the best defense in the NFL, Benjamin racked up six receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown.The Niners defense limited the Rams to 120 passing yards along with two sacks and two interceptions. Then again, it’s tough to tell if San Fran’s defense is that good or if L.A. is that bad. From the look of it, we’ll go with the latter.Benjamin still has some work to do as he only caught half of his 12 targets against the Broncos. But with 10 days in between games, look for Benjamin’s chemistry with Newton to shine again in his first game in Bank of America Stadium since January 2015.Controlling CarlosCarlos Hyde really likes season openers. In his first three seasons, Hyde has rushed for a combined 306 total yards and four touchdowns. In the other 19 games, he’s compiled 585 total rushing yards and five scores.Now the Panthers are charged with continuing that trend for the former Ohio State back.Unlike years past, the focus likely won’t go away from Hyde. Chip Kelly establishes the running game to set the tone for his fast-paced offense. After getting ravaged by C.J. Anderson (139 total yards, two TDs) and a bulldozing 28-yard score by Andy Janovich, Carolina’s run defense looked porous in Denver.Sunday afternoon will be another staunch test for the Panthers rush defense. And with Kelly looking to make a statement, controlling Carlos could go a long way in slowing down the Niners.Can the ground game get going?While Denver ran wild, Carolina’s ground game struggled. Cam rushed for 54 yards and a touchdown while Jonathan Stewart had 64 yards on the ground. It was yet another game where the Panthers totaled more than 100 rushing yards, but it certainly didn’t look impressive.The 49ers were able to bottle up Todd Gurley last week, forcing the 2015 Rookie of the Year to finish with 42 total yards. It was an impressive showing against the N.C. product, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season compared to just 2.8 against the Niners.Then again, the game plan for San Fran appeared to be tempting Case Keenum to drop back. Asking Newton to do that is not exactly the same. With plenty of weapons in the pass game and concern over Newton’s rushing ability, the ground game will be much more efficient Sunday.No place like homeCharlotte has been the ultimate home-field advantage for the Panthers dating back to 2014. The last home loss for Carolina came on Nov. 16, 2014, to the Atlanta Falcons. Since that point, the Panthers have rattled off 13 straight home victories, including three playoff triumphs.”The mentality at home is totally different,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We understand that this is our turf, this our home, and we don’t allow anybody to come in and just take over our territory.”Our fans do an amazing job when we’re home getting behind us and giving us energy every week. It’s the reason we’ve been so successful.”Sunday’s game is yet another sellout, marking the 140th straight time. What makes this year different? It’s been 12 years since the Panthers have enjoyed a season opener as NFC Champions. And with a rebuilding team on the other side, 14 in a row looks likely.