Dancing with the Skins

The Carolina Panthers welcome the Washington Redskins to Bank of America Stadium Saturday night. Or do they?

Before the Panthers came along, the Carolinas were Redskins territory. To this day, those loyalties remain among many of the locals. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ric Flair, for example, are Skins fans.

So home games with Washington will always have an edge to them for Carolina, even if they're preseason games. The players may not think so, but the fans do.

Washington owned this series early on, winning the first six regular season games and the first preseason tilt in 2002. But the Panthers finally broke through in 2003 with a 20-0 victory to open the 2003 preseason, the same year they got their only regular season win over Washington.

That's the history. On to the present. The Panthers have done what they're supposed to do so far this preseason. Their starters looked great in opening up a quick 14-0 lead over Indianapolis and a 13-0 lead at Philadelphia last week. The fact that backups have surrendered those leads in both games may be frustrating for fans who stay up to watch these games in their entirety, but it means little in terms of what you'll see in the regular season.

Washington is looking at perhaps the toughest row to hoe in the NFL this season. Their division is loaded, with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the oncoming Dallas Cowboys and the always tough Philadelphia Eagles to contend with. The Redskins could probably contend for the NFC South title. They're that talented. So this is a good test for the Panthers.

Carolina broke camp last week and will gameplan somewhat for this game. So watch closely. If the team looks sharp early on, that's a very good sign. If it lays an egg, it could spell regular season trouble. Starters typically play longer in this game than in any other preseason contest.

Rookie running back Jonathan Stewart should get his most playing time to date, which isn't saying much, but he'll be watched closely. His power is the perfect complement to DeAngelo Williams slashing abilities, so Carolina is counting on seeing it emerge soon, preferably tonight.

This is the most important preseason game this year for the Panthers. It's important for the coaches, the players, and because of the opponent...it's important for the fans, too.

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