Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers about to experience the magic of an NFL home opener

Eight months. That’s how long it has been since the Carolina Panthers have hosted a game that counts at Bank of America Stadium.

So Sunday – like the first home Sunday of any NFL season – will be festive.

Fans rarely are happier than during the moments leading up to a home opener kickoff. Friendships will be formed and renewed in the stands and the parking lots. NFL teams don’t have a homecoming like college and high school teams do, but the first Sunday of every season is the closest thing you get to it.

If NFL teams were to schedule homecoming opponents, the Detroit Lions certainly wouldn’t be a team you would pick this year. The Lions have been around since the 1930s and have never made it to the Super Bowl, but the 2014 version of the team is dangerous in a variety of ways.

The Lions don’t come to Charlotte much. The last time was in 2008. Calvin Johnson already was a fantastic player – he scored the game’s first touchdown on a 29-yard pass from Daunte Culpepper. But Carolina won 31-22 on the strength of 100-yard rushing performances by both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who both ran for more yardage than Jake Delhomme passed for that day.

Almost every position on both teams’ offenses has turned over since then. There’s a reason NFL unofficially stands for “Not For Long.” Williams is questionable to play with a thigh injury, but Johnson and Stewart both will be factors Sunday – Johnson first and foremost.

In 2012, I was in New York when Johnson and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton did a live TV show together for ESPN2 at Times Square. The occasion: The two were the finalists in a 64-player bracket, voted upon by fans, that decided who would grace the cover of the next issue of the Madden NFL video game. I was in New York to cover the NFL draft and went over to watch the show and write about the two of them.

The show itself was sort of silly. Newton hammed it up more successfully than a soft-spoken Johnson, but the wide receiver nicknamed “Megatron” was revealed to have won the final online fan vote, 52 percent to 48 percent, at the end of it. Newton, who had campaigned to win the vote by posting a homemade video online and challenging Johnson to a game of “Madden” (this challenge was not accepted), obviously was disappointed.

But what struck me most that day was how similar the men were in their build and athleticism. Johnson is 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds. Newton is 6-5 and 245. For a little while, Newton threw passes to Johnson at Times Square, and watching the ease of that connection made you wonder what Newton would do with a really good, big receiver.

Now he has the beginnings of one in rookie Kelvin Benjamin, and Sunday will be the first time the two will play in a real game together. Detroit’s secondary can be exploited – if Newton has time to throw – so the Panthers will have a chance to see how their own big receiver stacks up against the best wideout in the game.

If the Panthers stay relevant this season, they are going to have a lot of games that ultimately feel bigger than this one.

But, just like every year, there is nothing quite like a home opener.

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