Carolina (0-0) at Arizona (0-0)

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By MATT BEARDMORE, STATS Writer Wednesday, Sep 7, 2011 Kickoff: 4:15 pm EDT Sun Sep 11, 2011

Ron Rivera isn’t expecting Cam Newton to save the team, but the Carolina Panthers’ first-year coach is looking for this year’s top overall pick to help bring about some major improvement in 2011.

Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt hopes for the same with newcomer Kevin Kolb(notes) under center.

Both signal-callers begin what they hope will be long tenures with their new teams and major turnarounds as the Panthers visit the Cardinals on Sunday in a matchup of the NFC’s worst teams from 2010.

Much of Carolina’s hopes for a big jump from last season’s league-worst 2-14 record will ride on Newton’s right arm. Rivera named the reigning Heisman Trophy winner his starting quarterback following a 33-17 preseason loss to Pittsburgh on Sept. 1.

Newton beat out former starter Jimmy Clausen(notes), who is battling former Cardinal Derek Anderson(notes) for the backup job, despite completing just 42.1 percent of his passes in the preseason. He was more impressive with his feet, rushing nine times for 83 yards and a touchdown.

Though not expected to have anywhere near the success he did last year, having led Auburn to an unbeaten record and a national championship, Newton is being counted on to push the Panthers back in the right direction.

“We didn’t draft Cam to be the savior,” Rivera said. “We drafted him to help lead this football team.”

Hired in January to replace John Fox, Rivera was unable to properly implement his offense and defense in the offseason due to the NFL lockout, missing 24 practices.

Despite the lack of preparation time, Rivera - San Diego’s defensive coordinator the last three seasons - thinks his team can compete in the NFC South.

“I’m optimistic about who we are and who we can become,” he said. “Would I like to win them all? Absolutely. Do I think we can win 10? Yes. I think we can win 10.”

The Cardinals might be hopeful of winning that many thanks in part to Kolb’s arrival. Arizona finished 5-11 last season - Whisenhunt’s worst record in four years as coach - following two NFC West titles.

The team’s offseason priority was ending the quarterback carousel that saw Anderson and rookies John Skelton(notes) and Max Hall(notes) start games in 2010 following Kurt Warner’s(notes) retirement. Arizona got its man by acquiring Kolb from Philadelphia on July 28 for Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) and a second-round pick next year.

“I’m really happy we have him,” said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald(notes), who signed an eight-year deal in the offseason that could be worth up to $120 million. “… He’s got a great delivery in there and when you look in his eyes you can tell he really wants it and we’re going to all follow his lead.”

That’s what the Panthers hope to eventually have with Newton.

Four-time Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith, who missed the first two preseason games with a hand laceration, is excited about catching passes from Newton after Carolina was ranked last in the NFL last season in total offense (258.4 yards) and passing (143.1).

“He’s on his back foot throwing 50-yard passes. I mean, c’mon,” Smith said.

Tight ends Jeremy Shockey(notes) and Greg Olsen(notes), both acquired in the offseason, also should play significant roles in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s scheme.

Carolina, though, is likely to continue to rely heavily on a ground game led by DeAngelo Williams(notes) and Jonathan Stewart(notes).

“I know one thing, we’re not going to be the team we were last year,” said Williams, who re-signed for five years and $43 million after missing the final 10 games last season with a sprained foot. “We all have that bitter taste in our mouths and we want to get it out.

“Pretty soon we’re in the playoffs.”

The Cardinals’ rushing attack will be keyed by Beanie Wells(notes), the unquestioned No. 1 running back following Tim Hightower’s(notes) trade to Washington. Wells averaged just 3.4 yards per carry in 13 games last season after suffering a knee injury in the final preseason game.

Chester Taylor(notes) was signed Monday after being released by Chicago and should add some backfield depth for the Cardinals, who lost rookie Ryan Williams(notes) to a season-ending knee injury Aug. 19.

Kolb won’t have Steve Breaston(notes) (Kansas City) to throw to, but the Cardinals did add two-time Pro Bowler Todd Heap(notes) and fellow tight end Jeff King(notes), a former Panther.

Carolina, which has dropped its last eight road games, is 4-0 all-time at Arizona and has won seven straight in this series. The Panthers posted a 19-12 home win over the Cardinals on Dec. 19 as Stewart rushed for 137 yards.

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