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KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 3rd meeting. Panthers lead series 2-0. The Panthers won both previous meetings with the Bengals, including the last one back in 2002 by the score of 52-31. That's the most points the Panthers have ever scored in a game. Steve Smith scored three touchdowns that afternoon, including two on punt returns.
2006 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 18th (18th rush, 13th pass); defense 16th (19th rush, 17th pass). Bengals: offense 19th (22nd rush, 11th pass); defense 24th (25th rush, 14th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Bengals' issues along the offensive line continue with rookie Andrew Whitworth starting in place of injured LT Levi Jones. That puts Eric Steinbach back at left guard, where Whitworth was last weekend, and Eric Ghiaciuc at center. Whatever the combination, Cincinnati must get the run game going after failing to produce 100 yards on the ground for three consecutive games. But Carolina has not allowed a 100-yard rusher during its four-game winning streak and will attempt to turn the Bengals one-dimensional and come after QB Carson Palmer. The Bengals can't give Whitworth too much help because Panthers DE Julius Peppers is having a career year attacking from the other side of the line. Carolina's offense is hitting its stride with WR Steve Smith healthy and stretching the field. That opens more holes for RB DeShaun Foster -- a scary proposition for the Bengals' struggling and injury-depleted defense.
Panthers: Are 8-2 all-time against AFC North teams, including victories each of the past two weeks. ... QB Jake Delhomme's eight 300-yard passing games is tied for the franchise record with Steve Beuerlein. Bengals: RB Rudi Johnson has eight rushing touchdowns in his past six home games. ... Are 8-1 in past nine games against the NFC.
--DE Al Wallace was back at practice on Thursday and it appears he will play this week.
--SLB Thomas Davis missed his second straight day of practice on Thursday and while still listed as questionable he may be more on the doubtful side for this week's game. He has bruised ribs.
--SLB James Anderson would likely start for Thomas Davis this week if Davis isn't fully recovered from a rib injury. Davis missed this second straight day of practiced. Anderson was outstanding for the Panthers in the preseason and has played well in a limited role during the regular season.
--C Justin Hartwig is saying all the right things, although it appears he may not get his starting job back - at least not right away with the team on a four-game winning streak.
--RB DeAngelo Williams is doubtful for Sunday's game.
--WR Steve Smith scored three touchdowns and totaled a career-high 313 total yards in his only other performance against the Bengals back in 2002. Smith had two punt returns for touchdown that day.
--MLB Chris Draft is 7-0 when starting at middle linebacker for the Panthers, including 7-0 this season.
--WR Chris Henry's DUI case was continued to Nov. 27 in Clermont Municipal Court. The prosecution asked for the continuance. Henry will serve the second of a two-game suspension Sunday for violations of the NFL substance abuse and personal conduct policies. He will be eligible to return to play for the game Oct. 29 against Atlanta at Paul Brown Stadium.
--DT Sam Adams has played this season with a knee injury that the defensive tackle says will require postseason surgery. He injured the knee in his preseason debut Aug. 28 against Green Bay. Adams did say the knee is feeling better, and as a sign of his improved condition, he practiced Thursday for the first time in six game Thursdays this season.
--LB Rashad Jeanty (foot) was downgraded to doubtful for Sunday. He did not practice.
--CB Greg Brooks (knee) was downgraded to questionable and did not practice.
--LB Brian Simmons (neck) remained questionable and did not practice for the second day in a row.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Howard, a starter in Super Bowl XXXVIII for Carolina but now the team's fourth cornerback, is dealing with marital issues, according to a source close to the situation.
It's unclear at this point when or if Howard plans to return to the team, but the Panthers will receive a roster exemption while he's gone and are likely to add a cornerback to the roster prior to Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Panthers would have to make the roster move by Saturday.
"We've got some options we've not decided on at this point," said Fox, who admitted Howard's decision to leave the team came as "somewhat" of a surprise.
"That's a tough one," said defensive end Mike Rucker. "Hopefully he'll work through everything that is going on and it will work out well for him."
Howard began training camp as the No. 3 corner behind starters Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble, but dropped behind rookie Richard Marshall once the regular season arrived. Marshall has done nothing to lose that spot, recording interceptions in the last two games, including one he returned for a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns.
The Bengals have cleared the way for the return of former first-round draft pick Chris Perry. The Bengals waived tailback Quincy Wilson on Thursday, opening the 53rd spot on the active roster. Perry would need a spot in order to play Sunday against Carolina.
Perry practiced Thursday for the second consecutive day but remained listed as questionable (50-50 chance of playing) on the official injury report.
He said he has felt good.
"No, not really," Perry said when asked if he needed to play himself into football shape. "To be honest, it kind of feels easy. You don't have any preconceived thoughts or notions about how to run a play. You just go out there and play football. It pretty much feels easy. The act of playing football is easy."
The Bengals have struggled offensively this season, scoring just 13 points in the past two games - both losses - and converting just 32.3 percent of their third-down plays into first downs.
"I've been watching the team and thinking maybe I could help take some pressure off some guys," said Perry, who caught 51 passes last season.
Asked about his specialty on third down, Perry said, "I think I give them another option to throw to or hand it to."
Wilson played in three games this season, with two rushes for two net yards and one special teams tackle.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Panthers coach John Fox has a tough decision to make now that center Justin Hartwig is completely healthy and is no longer listed on the team's injury report after missing the last five games with a groin injury.
So will the guy the Panthers gave almost $5 million per season to return be inserted back in the starting lineup? We'll find out this week.
For the record, Fox said he hasn't made a decision on if Hartwig will start this week and will not make a decision until game time.
But you can bet he already knows.
Coaches are largely a superstitious lot and tend to stick to things that are working, especially when it comes to a group deal like the offensive line. So don't be surprised if Hartwig remains on the bench, at least until Carolina's winning streak is over or until after their bye in Week 9. If someone gets hurt this week expect him to be the first one off the bench.
The Panthers really stepped up on offense last week with 414 yards against the league's second-ranked defense. Expect them to pick up where they left off against a Bengals defense that has struggled most of the season. Jake Delhomme has supreme confidence in all four of his receivers and should post another strong game on the road.
Defensively, Julius Peppers has played like a league MVP and Carolina's other defensive end Mike Rucker will be going up against a rookie with left tackle Levi Jones out of the lineup.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Panthers LDE Julius Peppers vs. Bengals RT Willie Anderson -- Peppers has been unstoppable this season and this week he takes on Anderson, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons. Peppers has an NFL-best eight sacks in five games, putting him on pace to flirt with Michael Strahan's all-time record. In addition, Peppers has a team-high 16 quarterback hurries and has forced three fumbles. Anderson is a pretty solid right tackle, but Peppers is having a special season. He's basically been all over the field and if the Bengals don't double-team him on every down, they will pay.
Panthers WR Steve Smith vs. Bengals WR Chad Johnson -- OK, these two won't face each other on the field, but they will certainly look for some one-upsmanship. They played together at Santa Monica Junior College and both went on to greater things. They remain highly competitive individuals and will surely be looking to get the best of each other. In Smith's last game against the Bengals, Smith had an incredible game with five catches for 144 yards and a touchdown and two punt returns for touchdowns for a career-high of 313 total yards.
Also, defensive end Al Wallace (forearm) and linebacker Thomas Davis (ribs) are both questionable and were held out of practice on Wednesday. Wallace said he expects to play Sunday, but Davis left his status up in the air as a coach's decision.