TV: FOX (Dick Stockton, Brian Baldinger, Laura Okmin)
SERIES: 4th meeting. Panthers lead series 2-1. In the last meeting in 2004, the Chargers defeated the Panthers 16-7.
PREDICTION: Chargers 24-14
KEYS TO THE GAME: WR Steve Smith is suspended and D.J. Hackett will start in his place despite not practicing with his new team since Aug. 6. So how will the Panthers generate a passing game? RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart looked like an explosive tandem during the preseason, but better running games than Carolina's have had trouble moving the ball against San Diego. When the Chargers bring a safety forward, QB Jake Delhomme needs WRs Muhsin Muhammad and Dwayne Jarrett or TE Dante Rosario to step up.
Line dancing: The Chargers' offense has weapons at all the skill positions, but they could all be hampered by what happens in the trenches. With LT Marcus McNeill out, L.J. Shelton will be left to deal with Panthers DE Julius Peppers. And C Nick Hardick's absence could hurt the running game significantly. If TE Antonio Gates is limited by his toe or conditioning, backup Brandon Manumaleuna could be used to help more in pass protection.
Panthers: Hackett (toe) returned to practice Wednesday and is expected to start. WR/return man Ryne Robinson (knee) will not play.
Chargers: OLB Shawn Merriman (knee) will play, but might take some early downs off to rest. ... McNeill (neck) and C Nick Hardwick (foot) will not play.
NEED TO KNOW: The Panthers are 7-13 in games in which Smith hasn't played since 2001. ... The Chargers led the NFL with a plus-24 turnover margin last season.
--WR D.J. Hackett worked for the second straight day in practice without any injury problems. He's likely to start Sunday opposite Muhsin Muhammad. Dwayne Jarrett will be the third receiver -- and fourth, fifth and sixth, for that matter. The only other healthy receiver on the roster is Mark Jones and he's a return man who has never caught a pass in the NFL and is unfamiliar with the Carolina offense.
--WR/KR Ryne Robinson did not practice and is not expected to play this week.
--DE Julius Peppers gave some insight into why he feels more comfortable lining up at right end rather than left end. "Being left-handed, my left hand is going to be the hand that makes contact first and that I play the run with inside," Peppers said. "I am more powerful on that side. But really, teams run to the left side more often than not, because the right side is the open side or the weak side."
--QB Josh McCown will be ready to play Sunday if needed, said coach John Fox. When asked how ready McCown will be, Fox said, "Probably about as ready as Vinny (Testaverde) was last year against Arizona, and it was good enough. Josh is a pro and he's played in the NFL before. He's started in the NFL before, much like Vinny, maybe not quite as long. But we feel good about having him ready to play."
--QB Matt Moore (broken fibula) is out four-to-six weeks.
OT Marcus McNeill
--TE Antonio Gates (toe) will play on Sunday, but he wasn't sure if he would start. Gates will likely be compromised by his ailing toe most of the season.
--OLB Shawne Merriman (knee) will play Sunday, but he could be kept off the field on running downs. If so, Jyles Tucker would fill in.
--ILB Derek Smith will get the first of his expected four starts to begin the season. Smith is subbing for the suspended Stephen Cooper.
--Free-agent OL Willie Anderson was on the Chargers' radar, but he decided to sign with the Ravens instead.
--DT Jamal Williams, who is nursing two sore knees, will start on Sunday.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Quarterback Matt Moore said he'll miss four-to-six weeks with a broken left fibula.
He re-injured his leg during Wednesday's practice and has already been declared out this week against San Diego, according to coach John Fox. The news wasn't announced by the team until Wednesday night. Moore said he broke the bone about 15 minutes into practice on his first drop-back. Moore said he felt something pop in his left leg and knew right away it wasn't good.
Although he remained on the practice field, he didn't participate in any more drills. After practice, he was examined again when the players returned to the locker room.
"The x-ray they took last week and this week is night and day," said Moore, who is wearing a boot on his left leg. "I knew something was wrong. I knew it wasn't the same as what I did in Pittsburgh."
Moore injured his leg in the preseason finale when he took a shot from backup Anthony Harris.
As for his recovery, Moore said, "From what I'm told, it's all on me. There is nothing you can really do for it except let the bone heal itself and fuse back together. But it all depends on how I feel and what I can do."
Meanwhile, Brett Basanez maintains the Panthers "made the wrong decision" when they released him on Saturday and vows to show the team why.
Basanez, who was initially told he wouldn't be re-signed to the practice squad, received an unexpected call to come back on Wednesday after Moore injured his leg. He signed with the practice squad, but could be called up at any point down the road.
"I was pretty startled when they called," Basanez said. "It was out of the blue. They explained something happened to Matt. I'm just happy to get a job. It gives me more time to prove that I think they made the wrong decision. It gives me time to prove that they did. I was getting ready all camp and I'm ready to play and I'll keep getting ready every day and getting better."
Basanez was at home when he got the call from the Panthers.
"I was actually getting ready to paint two bathrooms in my house," he said. "My wife is putting me to work. I'm definitely glad to be back. She kept using the line, 'I'm really the breadwinner now, so the bathrooms need to be painted.'"
QB Philip Rivers
But one will -- and some doubted that at some point.
Quarterback Philip Rivers will be barking out his cadence, some seven months removed from having his ACL in his knee repaired.
Rivers played in the AFC Championship Game with the injury. While the Chargers lost that day to the Patriots, Rivers won over his teammates.
Rivers has always been a key player for the Chargers. Now he has become a key leader as well.
So says another leader of the Chargers -- running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
"He's just become more of a leader in all areas of his game, where it used to be where he would lead on the field and, at the time, didn't say too much to guys," Tomlinson said.
"Now you see him lead in the classroom, and obviously, out here on the field, telling guys what to do, leading off the field, setting an example for guys the way it should be and the way you approach getting prepared for a game."
Rivers learned well from Drew Brees, when Rivers was a backup for two years. Among Brees' attributes was the way he led the team.
Rivers took notice, and has always embraced that role. But it seems like that role has increased after his gutsy performance on that frigid afternoon in Foxborough, Mass.
"That isn't why I played in the game at all," he said, "but certainly, you do gain a little bit by doing it."
Rivers hopes for a quick start to the season's opening month on Sunday. The Chargers won their opener last year, but was only 1-3 after four games.
Rivers would struggle through 10 games, then got hot down the stretch to lead the Chargers to only their fourth AFC title game in franchise history.
"That was good for me to go through that," Rivers said of last year's tough stretch. "I had a false sense of what the position entails, going 14-2 (in 2006) and really every mistake I made was swept under the rug because of my first year starting and we were winning.
"Last year, I got a taste of it, making some poor plays and some poor decisions, and it cost us and the team was struggling. Continuing to lead and help us fight through that adversity, I think it made me tougher and a better player."