CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -When the NFL schedule came out, Chicago at Carolina appeared almost certain to match teams desperate to avoid 0-2 starts.
Coming off 7-9 seasons, the Panthers and Bears had retooled rosters, numerous unanswered questions and faced seemingly impossible Week 1 road games against elite AFC teams.
Then the Panthers, playing without suspended star receiver Steve Smith, stunned San Diego with a touchdown on the final play. Their reign as the NFC's biggest surprise winner lasted all of four hours, until the Bears, behind a rookie running back and a dominant defense, finished a thorough dismantling of Indianapolis.
Now instead of just being a game featuring a couple of ex-Bears looking to settle scores against their former team, Sunday's game is suddenly a marquee matchup of two possibly emerging teams with plenty of confidence that they'll be factors in an unsettled NFC.
n you are able to win,'' Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. ``Similar to the Panthers, I think they were a 9-point underdog also. You have to get to that first game and then you can see exactly what you're dealing with.''
If Week 1 is the barometer, the Panthers and Bears appear ready to rejoin the upper echelon after going to Super Bowls earlier this decade. In their first meeting since Carolina's win in the divisional playoffs in January 2006, both teams believe they've returned to the defense-first, bruising, ball-control style missing last year.
``We look a lot like them,'' Smith said.
And they know a lot about each other. Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad and safety Chris Harris are former Bears, and their exits from Chicago were far from rosy. Muhammad was unceremoniously released in the offseason after managing only 40 catches in 2007. This summer he told a national magazine that Chicago, with its quarterback carousel over the years, ``is where receivers go to die.''
Quarterback Kyle Orton, who was seen jawing with Muhammad on the sideline on several occasions, was asked this week for his reaction to Muhammad's remarks.
``I don't have one,'' a terse Orton replied, before walking off the podium.
FL with eight forced fumbles. The Panthers gave him a new contract in the offseason, and he responded by ripping the ball away from Antonio Gates on Sunday in San Diego. Chris Gamble returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
``I think I've already proved them wrong,'' Harris said of the Bears. ``I was a little bitter when it happened, of course. I'm pretty sure most people would be. But I'm their opponent now, so I'm going to give them hell.''
He'll face an offense that has new weapons since he left. Rookie Matt Forte rushed for 123 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown, in his NFL debut Sunday. After averaging a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry last year, Chicago rolled up 183 on the ground against the Colts. Orton threw for only 150 yards, but was composed, spread the ball to seven receivers and didn't have an interception.
``I'm confident that I can play well. I don't know about making any statements or anything like that,'' said Orton, who won the starting job over Rex Grossman. ``I thought that I played well and made the right decisions.''
The Panthers' shocking win in San Diego came after they blew a 19-10 fourth-quarter lead. Jake Delhomme, in his first regular-season game following reconstructive elbow surgery, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dante Rosario as time expired.
ing without Smith. The three-time Pro Bowl selection will sit out again Sunday to complete his unpaid suspension for sucker-punching teammate Ken Lucas in a training camp.
``We needed to win without him. That's not a knock on him, that's for this team. We have to try to win games without Steve,'' Delhomme said. ``It just makes you feel good when you can do that. ... Certainly we're going to welcome him back on Monday, but we need to go out and try to play good football.''
Like the Bears, the Panthers were determined in the offseason to become a running team again. Behind an overhauled offensive line, DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart combined for 139 yards on 28 carries against the Chargers.
But Carolina faces a tough test Sunday. The Bears invoked memories of their dominant defenses of 2005 and 2006 when they shut down Peyton Manning and the Colts. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye had a safety, and linebacker Lance Briggs returned a fumble 21 yards for a touchdown.
``We all know it was a big win (in San Diego). It was huge to travel across the country and play a very good football team,'' Delhomme said. ``We enjoyed it on the plane ride home and we enjoyed it a little bit when we watched film Monday. But I think that enthusiasm gets tempered a little bit when you see what Chicago did Sunday night and watch them on film. They looked the part, they really did.''
omme and the Panthers: playing at home. Their ineptitude at Bank of America Stadium is one of the biggest puzzles of Fox's regime. Carolina is 28-21 on the road and only 24-24 at home under Fox.
But it gets worse. Last year, the Panthers were 5-3 on the road and 2-6 at home. They've lost four straight home openers.
``We want to be considered one of the best teams not just in the NFC, but in this league. So we have to come in week in and win out,'' Harris said. ``We can't be on a roller-coaster ride like last year.''
The game certainly won't lack emotion. Harris said he's been waiting to play the Bears since the day he was traded. Muhammad needs 10 yards to reach 10,000 receiving in his career. Orton clearly would relish a big game in front of Muhammad after their recent spats.
And the winner will move to 2-0 and might be considered a major player in the NFC after a dismal 2007.
``I don't think we need any more motivation,'' Orton said. ``This is going to be a huge game at this point in the season for us.''

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