Even if quarterback Cam Newton is laden with months of built up rust, I contend he still gives the Carolina Panthers the best chance to beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Assuming one agrees with that hypothesis, then Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen have to devise a plan to take Newton out of the game.
No, I'm not advocating a page out of the Saints' Bounty-gate playbook used by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams back in 2009-'11. But I am saying they need to make Newton feel Carolina blue -- within the NFL rules, of course -- when he's in or outside the pocket.
Tug on Superman's cape.
Put his head on a swivel.
Make Newton feel pain, as the Buffalo Bills did last Sunday when they sacked him six times, hit him another seven times and caused him to aggravate an old ankle injury.
I know this: Newton can't beat the Saints standing on the sideline. I'll take my chances with Panthers' backup Derek Anderson any day.
Truth be told, Newton is not himself entering Week 3, nearly six months after undergoing surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his right throwing shoulder. He's not throwing downfield with any consistency or zip on the ball. Panthers' offensive coordinator Mike Shula is not calling as many designed running plays for Newton, nor is the quarterback looking to scramble at the first sign of trouble as he has with great gusto in the past.
Oh, Newton will run as a last resort but he's relying more on short passes, check downs, eating the ball and throwing it away. That new mindset isn't expected to change with the loss of five-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who's expected to be out eight weeks recovering from a broken right foot.
Even with Olsen, the Panthers had trouble scoring, averaging just 16.0 points in wins against San Francisco (23-3) and Buffalo (9-3). That translates into two touchdowns in 21 possessions, both coming through the air, with only one of six trips ending in TDs inside the red zone.
By comparison, the Panthers led the NFL in scoring (31.3 ppg) in 2015 en route to a 15-1 regular-season record and a berth in Super Bowl 50.
Last season, even as Newton became a human pinata for head-hunting defenses, the Panthers still averaged 23.1 points.
Many pundits expect to see a different Carolina offense Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, citing the Saints' defense (512.5 ypg/32.5 ppg) is nothing more than an annoying speed bump and will be the perfect tonic for Newton and versatile rookie running back/punt returner Christian McCaffrey, among others.
Time will tell.
Even if the Saints defense somehow keeps the game in the 20s, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his offense must outplay the NFL's No. 1-ranked scoring defense (6.0 ppg) which has yet to yield a touchdown.
I'm not sure a 60-minute game of complementary football is in the Saints DNA right now.