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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy stood in a corner of the locker room sizing up the challenge the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face opening the season against Cam Newton and the defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers.

The Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, a drought that’s prompted three coaching changes in five years, including the hiring of Lovie Smith last winter.

The Panthers, meanwhile, won 12 games to match a franchise record, with an improved Newton re-establishing himself as one of the NFL’s up-and-coming stars.

Carolina dominated Tampa Bay twice along the way, and McCoy hasn’t forgotten.

“Right now our identity is we’re a 4-12 team. Until we change that, that’s who we are,” McCoy said. “Until somebody changes who Carolina is, they’re the division champs.”

The task begins Sunday.

The notion of going from worst to first in the NFC South isn’t farfetched. It’s happened six times since the division was formed in 2002, and the Bucs, Panthers, Falcons and Saints have all finished first three times.

Interestingly, no team has won titles in consecutive years.

“I think everybody has been talking about that, and we obviously know about it,” Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 NFL defensive player of the year, said.

Not that the Panthers fancy themselves as history buffs.

“Our goal is the same as it is every year, and that’s to go out and win the division. I don’t think it really matters if we’re supposed to win or if we’re not supposed to win. … The mindset is to go out there and win the division,” Kuechly added. “I think that’s all 32 teams’ goal. … All of the talk outside of the team, and all of the other stuff is just talk.”

With Newton leading the way, the Panthers swept the season series a year ago by a combined 58-19. The young quarterback threw for two touchdowns and ran for one in each game.

“He got comfortable. He’s not a guy you want to get comfortable,” McCoy said. “He’s one of the best escape artists we have in this league. If you give him too much time, he’ll kill you with his feet or his arm. We’ve got to be all over him.”

Newton had ankle surgery during the offseason and has been slowed the past two weeks by a rib injury he’s said will not stop him from playing.

“I’m being optimistic about this whole thing, and I have no other choice but to feel that way,” Newton said. “I don’t want to ever put this team or myself in jeopardy that I’m just stressing to hurry up and get out there and I’m not able to be what makes me me.”

In their debut under Smith, the Bucs have been challenged on defense to outplay Carolina’s highly regarded unit. The Panthers led the league with 60 sacks and ranked second in total defense in 2013.

Under Smith, who coached the Bears from 2004-12, the Bucs have switched to a version of the Tampa-2 scheme they popularized during a decade of success under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden.

With McCoy anchoring the defensive line, and linebacker Lavonte David making play after play, Smith feels he has the makings of another dominant unit.

“Potential is nothing, you can say anybody has potential. Everybody has got potential to do something,” McCoy said. “It’s about getting it done.”

Things to watch when the Panthers and Buccaneers open the season:

THE BIG UNKNOWN: Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said the toughest part of preparing for the Bucs’ offense is not knowing what to expect. Tampa Bay has a new offensive coordinator in Jeff Tedford, a former coach at Cal who has never called plays at the NFL level.

BUT WHO’S CALLING PLAYS SUNDAY?: Tedford underwent an unspecified medical procedure last month, and the Bucs have not confirmed he will work Sunday’s game. In his absence, the rest of the offensive staff collaborated on the game plan. Quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo will relay play calls if Tedford is out.

NEW QB: Career backup Josh McCown will start a season opener for the first time since 2007. He’s coming off his best year as a pro, throwing for 13 touchdowns versus one interception while filling in for an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago. The Bucs are counting on him to help turn around an offense that ranked 30th in scoring and last in passing and total yardage in 2013.

STARTING SLOW: The Panthers have not won a season opener since 2008. Carolina opened at Tampa Bay two years ago, losing 16-10.

Carolina has opened the last three seasons 1-5, 1-6 and 1-3 under coach Ron Rivera.

DEFENSIVE SHOWDOWN: Don’t be surprised to see a defensive showdown. The Panthers ranked only behind Seattle on defense last season, and Smith boasted “we feel like we will be one of the best defenses in the league this year.” Smith and Rivera have strong defensive backgrounds, and the Panthers coach served as Bears defensive coordinator under Smith.

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Never before have three NFL teams started 8-0 in the same season, so as long as the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Carolina Panthers remain unbeaten, their pursuits of perfection will draw plenty of attention.

Those teams’ quarterbacks — Tom Brady, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton — also will be worth keeping an eye on in the MVP race.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of football fans and TV executives, none of those teams will face each other the rest of the way in the regular season for what would have been a much-hyped showdown.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Detroit Lions, at 1-7 owners of the league’s worst record, are in pole position for the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft. The Lions’ remaining schedule does not include any of the teams currently with two victories.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t must-see matchups in Weeks 10 through 17.

Here’s a look at some of the most intriguing games to watch in the NFL’s second half:

BILLS AT JETS in Week 10, JETS AT BILLS in Week 17: Any time Buffalo coach Rex Ryan faces his former club, there is sure to be some off-the-field story line that grabs interest, starting Thursday night, when he promised to send out linebacker Ikemefuna Enemkpali as a game-day captain. Enemkpali was cut by the Jets after breaking quarterback Geno Smith’s jaw at training camp — Ryan’s Bills signed him the next day.

PATRIOTS AT GIANTS in Week 10: The last time Brady and Co. were 8-0 was in 2007, and the Patriots wound up getting all the way to 18-0 before losing to Eli Manning’s Giants in the Super Bowl. New York and coach Tom Coughlin defeated New England and coach Bill Belichick in another Super Bowl four seasons later.

COWBOYS AT DOLPHINS in Week 11: Dallas hasn’t won since QB Tony Romo went out in Week 2 with a broken collarbone; he is eligible to come off injured reserve for this game, which might be too late to save the Cowboys’ season.

BILLS AT PATRIOTS in Week 11: Ryan vs. Belichick. Enough said.

PACKERS AT VIKINGS in Week 11, VIKINGS AT PACKERS in Week 17: Who thought Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay would be tied for the NFC North lead with Minnesota at the midway point?

PATRIOTS AT BRONCOS in Week 12: Brady and Denver’s Peyton Manning renew their rivalry in a prime-time game, and the Broncos finally have a topflight defense to throw at the Patriots.

FALCONS AT PANTHERS in Week 14, PANTHERS AT FALCONS in Week 16: Only three of Carolina’s eight games still on the schedule come against teams that have winning records right now — and two are against NFC South rival Atlanta.

PACKERS AT CARDINALS in Week 16: Assuming Rodgers and Green Bay emerge from their current funk, this could be a key late-season measuring stick for two of the NFC’s better teams.

BENGALS AT BRONCOS in Week 16: The AFC’s two best teams not based in the Northeast.

49ERS AT LIONS in Week 16: The No. 1 draft pick and the futures of QBs Colin Kaepernick and Matthew Stafford could all be at stake.


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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chuck Pagano could blame New England for one of his most bitter football memories.

On the other hand, that loss also opened a new chapter in Pagano’s life.

Now, three years after that stinging 23-20 championship game loss against the Patriots, the former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator is getting a second chance to earn a Super Bowl ticket at New England — this time as the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach.

“We wouldn’t be having this discussion right now had things transpired in a different way,” Pagano said as Indianapolis prepares for Sunday’s AFC championship game.

He has often contended that if the Ravens won that day — on Lee Evans’ near-touchdown catch with 27 seconds left or in overtime, if Billy Cundiff had made a 32-yard field goal with 15 seconds to go — that he never would have landed in Indy (13-5).

General manager Ryan Grigson didn’t go that far this week, though he did recall watching the game and going through some old notes about Pagano almost immediately after Cundiff’s kick sailed wide left. Within 24 hours, Grigson had contacted Ravens coach John Harbaugh for permission to interview Pagano, who was still angry.

“The bitterness was still emanating from him, even when we brought him in,” Grigson said. “So that game was his loss, but our gain because when he finally came in, it was evident to all of us in that room that this was the right guy.”

Three days after the game, Pagano accepted his first head coaching job.

At first, the outlook looked bleak.

The Colts were in the midst of a salary-cap purge and about embarked on one of the most ambitious rebuilding projects. They started by releasing a bevy of fan favorites including the seemingly untouchable Peyton Manning. Pagano now jokes that at one point he looked around his office and asked his wife, Tina, “what the heck did we just do?”

Grigson never asked the same question about a man he viewed as a leader that could pull the best out of his players.

Pagano proved to be everything Grigson envisioned and more, on and off the field.

He helped convince Reggie Wayne, one of his old college players, to stick around for a hometown discount. He helped recruit defensive tackle Arthur Jones and defensive end Cory Redding, both starters who were in the Ravens’ locker room that awful day in New England, as free agents. It didn’t take much of a push.

“I know what kind of guy he is, stand-up guy, shoots it straight to you, fun, energetic at practice, expects a lot out of you in the meeting rooms to know your stuff,” Redding said, explaining why he left a championship contender to join a team that went 2-14 the year before he came. “Knowing the system, knowing him, it was just easy for me to make the decision.”

It turned out the Colts’ incredible turnaround was about a lot more than just wins and losses.

Three games into Pagano’s tenure, he was diagnosed with leukemia.

Pagano spent 25 days at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis as longtime friends Wayne, Redding and Bruce Arians and new friends such as Robert Mathis, Andrew Luck, Grigson and team owner Jim Irsay rallied the team. After returning home, the treatments continued for two more months.

The team responded to Pagano’s absence by winning nine times, none more electrifying than the second-half comeback against Green Bay when Wayne caught 13 passes for a career high 212 yards and the winning score with 35 seconds left. Irsay and Grigson hand-delivered the game ball to Pagano at the hospital.

“I can’t imagine being anywhere else and having a city and a community embrace somebody they hardly know,” Pagano said when he returned to the team complex on Christmas Eve. “I just think that’s how we roll in this great state, this great city and this great community.”

And Pagano just kept winning.

Indy completed one its nine-game improvement over the 2011 season by winning in Pagano’s first game back on the sideline. The Colts have won 11 more regular-season games each of the past two seasons, the last two AFC South titles and here playoff games.

But those who were with Pagano in Baltimore know that’s not good enough yet.

“That loss lingered the whole offseason,” said Jones, who was part of Baltimore’s 2013 world championship team. “It was a tough way to end your year after making it that far. It bothers you.”

So this week with a second shot, Pagano is taking none at the Patriots.

He’s just focused on trying to get the biggest win — and best memory — of his coaching career.

“It’s about the game, it’s about the team, it’s about us doing our job,” Pagano said Monday. “We know how great a team we’re going to play. You’ve got a Hall of Fame coach, a Hall of Fame quarterback and a bunch of great players on both sides of the ball. It’s going to be a tall order.”