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NFL Preview - St. Louis (3-3) at Carolina (2-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Quarterbacks selected with the first pick in the NFL Draft haven't always been the catalysts for instant turnarounds. However, the teams that have gone with signal callers at No. 1 in the last few years seem pretty content with their decisions.
Two of those players - Sam Bradford (2010) of the St. Louis Rams and Cam Newton (2011) of the Carolina Panthers - will meet for the first time on Sunday in Charlotte to compare their respective progress reports.
For Bradford, a former star at the University of Oklahoma, it's a chance to win a third consecutive start for just the second time in his brief career.
The Rams opened 2013 with a home defeat of Arizona, then lost three straight games - at Atlanta, at Dallas and home to San Francisco - before bouncing back the last two weekends with a home defeat of Jacksonville and a 25-point rout at Houston.
St. Louis scored just 14 points per game during the three losses, but has put up a combined 72 in the victories over the Jaguars and Texans.
"They really never lost their confidence," coach Jeff Fisher said. "They just lost games."
The wins have seen a marked improvement in Bradford, who's thrown for 339 yards and six touchdowns and compiled a 121.6 passer rating - including a 134.6 mark against Houston - while hitting on 31-of-50 attempts. In the three straight losses, his rating was 77.1.
"He's been great, no mistakes," Fisher said. "He's managing the game. He's carrying on."
Not coincidentally, the Bradford resurgence came right about the time the Rams rediscovered a running game. Rookie Zac Stacy has churned out 157 yards in the last two weeks and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
Previous No. 1 back Daryl Richardson was averaging just 2.9 yards while starting three of the initial four games.
The Panthers have been less than porous against previous ground-gainers. They sit fourth in the league in rush defense at 88 yards per game. Overall, they're third, with a per-game total yardage clip of 299.2.
In the last three weeks, that average is 230 and they've forced eight turnovers.
A beneficiary of that stinginess on the other side has been Newton, who completed 20-of-26 passes for 242 yards, three scores and ran for another TD in a Week 6 defeat of Minnesota.
Coach Ron Rivera has trended toward bold when making offensive decisions, successfully converting a pair of fourth downs on the opening drive against the Vikings.
"Sometimes you play by the book and you miss opportunities," he said. "It's been an enlightening situation for me and one of the things I want to try to do is make sure we're in the best position to win."
Newton said the offense gets a boost when the coach provides that support.
"To trust us means a lot and it speaks volumes," Newton said. "He always has that conservative mentality. He is kind of breaking his mold to a degree, and giving the whole team confidence with him."
Carolina opened with losses to Seattle and Buffalo, then ripped the New York Giants, 38-0, in Week 3 at home. The Panthers' bye came in Week 4 and was followed by a 16-point loss at Arizona and the 25-point blowout win at Minnesota.
In the Rams, they meet a foe that's been gashed for 165.3 yards per game on the ground over the past four weeks, though that's been made up for in some part by the creation of seven turnovers in the last two games.
St. Louis scored twice on defense against Houston last week.
"We know our hands are going to be full against a team that's also coming off a big win," Newton said. "We're all excited about getting the opportunity to (return home). It feels like it's been a long time, but at the same time we're coming in with a little bit of momentum. That's what you want."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Rams to seek balance. St. Louis's stats from the Houston victory were noticeable -- only 16 throws by Bradford, in particular -- but they're mitigated by the fact that the Rams took an early lead and changed the game's dynamic.
This week, facing a team that's among the league's best stopping the run, expect offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to not abandon the run, but probably put more on Bradford's plate.
The Panthers to go old school. Carolina is one of the few teams in recent years to average more rushing attempts (32.6 per game through six games) than pass attempts (30.6 per game), and the Rams could be vulnerable there, considering they've allowed more than 160 per game on the ground in the last four.
Two young quarterbacks. Two teams coming off big wins and hoping to sustain some fleeting momentum. In other words, not a lot to choose from.
We'll go with a confident Newton and a solid run defense in the Panthers, who ought to be able to halt Bradford and Co. once more than the Rams stop Newton.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Panthers 25, Rams 19
10/17 13:14:47 ET
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