The Seattle Seahawks are eager to build on last season's success, but some immediate concerns still surround a team filled with high expectations.
A good start seems to be imperative for the Carolina Panthers' attempt to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Seahawks look to win their first road opener since 2006 on Sunday against a Panthers team hoping to carry over its late-season success to 2013.
After going 11-5 and winning a road playoff game in 2012, Seattle can't wait to get this season underway.
"We're ready to go," said coach Pete Carroll, whose team rallied from a 20-point first-half deficit before Matt Bryant's field goal with eight seconds left dealt it a 30-28 divisional playoff loss at Atlanta. "It's great that the regular season is here.
"We wanted to put together a good offseason and a solid preseason, and I thought we did."
The Seahawks have the talent to again seriously contend in the NFC behind running back Marshawn Lynch, versatile quarterback Russell Wilson and a secondary that paced the NFL's top scoring defense (15.3 points per game) in 2012.
Lynch rushed for a career-high 1,590 yards and had 11 touchdowns, while Wilson beat out free-agent signee Matt Flynn for the starting job as a rookie, then threw for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns while also running for 489 yards.
The Seahawks also appeared to take a giant step forward when they traded for versatile receiver Percy Harvin to help add balance after their 536 rushing attempts accounted for an NFL-high 55.0 percent of their offensive plays. Harvin, though, was placed on the reserve physically unable to perform list with a hip injury that will keep him out until Week 7 at the earliest.
"It's going to take a good month before we will be able to figure out if he is even going to have a chance to come roaring back out of it,'' Carroll said.
The secondary of Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor is perhaps the most talented in the league after helping Seattle's defense rank sixth against the pass (203.1 yards per game) in 2012.
"We have an elite group of DBs back there,'' Sherman said.
The Seahawks, however, have concerns in front of that group, which will now be coordinated by Dan Quinn after Gus Bradley left to become Jacksonville's head coach.
Prospective starting defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel were slowed by injuries during training camp, key free-agent acquisition Cliff Avril is dealing with a hamstring issue and pass-rushing linebacker Bruce Irvin is suspended the first four weeks for using banned substances.
It's also uncertain when defensive Chris Clemons will return from a knee injury suffered in last season's 24-14 wild-card victory at Washington.
For those healthy on either side of the ball, Carroll hopes for better self-discipline after Seattle was flagged 42 times for 419 yards during a 4-0 preseason. The Seahawks' 110 penalties were the sixth-most in the NFL last season, 13 of which came in a Week 1 loss at Arizona - their sixth straight defeat in a road opener.
"I love the attitude about it in a sense, but we have to get smarter and we can't do anything but continue to emphasize the heck out of it," Carroll said.
Seattle was flagged seven times for 65 yards but pulled out a 16-12 win at Carolina on Oct. 7. Wilson had one of his two interceptions returned for a touchdown, but he connected with Golden Tate on a 13-yard pass play for the game's only offensive touchdown.
The Seahawks held Carolina to a season-low 190 total yards, 156 of which came on two possessions. The Panthers averaged 3.8 yards on their other nine.
That defeat contributed to Carolina's second straight 2-8 start. Nine of the Panthers' 13 wins the last two seasons came after Thanksgiving, including four straight to end 2012.
That's apparently been enough to secure third-year coach Ron Rivera's job at least for this season.
"We can't put ourselves in that hole and think a late six-game push is going to put us over the top when you start the season 2-8,'' tight end Greg Olsen said. "We need those late-season pushes, but that is to put you into the playoffs not to just salvage a season.
"We need to make those games in November and December real and the only way to do that is to put ourselves in playoff contention early.''
Star quarterback Cam Newton has combined for 62 touchdowns and thrown for 7,920 yards in his first two NFL seasons, but is 13-19 as a starter. He was 12 of 29 for a career-low 141 yards and sacked four times against the Seahawks.
New offensive coordinator Mike Shula wants the Panthers to return to a "more traditional" rushing offense, but Jonathan Stewart will miss at least six weeks with an ankle injury and DeAngelo Williams has carried the ball at least 20 times in a game just twice in two seasons.
Veteran receiver Steve Smith is coming off his seventh 1,000-yard season but had only four touchdowns in 2012.
Defensive rookie of the year Luke Kuechly led the league with 164 tackles, while ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy combined for 23 1/2 sacks as the Panthers' defense ranked 10th in the NFL (331.1 ypg) in 2012.