- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers (2-3) haven't had a record of .500 or better six games into the season since 2008. They'll be trying to accomplish that on Sunday against a St. Louis Rams (3-3) team that hasn't had a winning season since 2003.
Here are three keys for Carolina to achieve that in Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium:
Strength vs. weakness: The key for both teams is in the running game. Carolina has the league's seventh-best rushing attack, averaging 135.8 yards a game. The Rams have the league's 30th-worst rush defense, allowing 130.5 yards per game. If this trend continues it strongly favors the Panthers. The same goes the other way. Carolina ranks fourth at stopping the run and the Rams are 28th in rushing. This seems like a total mismatch on both sides -- one that Carolina has to capitalize on.
Dinking and dunking: Both quarterbacks were exceptional at short passes last week. Carolina's Cam Newton was a career-best 18-for-21 on passes of 10 or fewer yards against Minnesota. St. Louis' Sam Bradford completed only three passes for more than 10 yards against Houston and all three of his touchdown passes came on throws that didn't travel more than five yards past the line of scrimmage. The short-passing game will likely figure prominently again for both team, particularly for the Rams against a Carolina defense that allowed 32 completions against the Vikings.
Homeland security: Carolina has gone 7-11 at home under coach Ron Rivera. If the Panthers, 1-1 at home this year, hope to keep any playoff aspirations they need to go 7-1 or 6-2 at worst at home. The fate of Carolina's season actually could be decided in the next three weeks with home games against the Rams on Sunday and the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 3 sandwiching a trip to winless Tampa Bay. After that there's a tough stretch that includes road games at San Francisco and Miami, and a home game against New England.