Some sports name three stars of the game after the game. I'll do that one better: I'm going to name them before the Ravens even play. These will be the three stars of the game when the Ravens host the Carolina Panthers in the first and possibly only "Blood and Guts" Bowl.
1. Wide receiver Steve Smith
Who else could it be? Any fairly educated guess as to who's the difference in this game must include the former Panthers wide receiver for several reasons, not the least of which is because he holds a big grudge against Carolina.
Another reason is how clearly he's emerged as the Ravens' top pass-catching option. Quarterback Joe Flacco is willing to throw to him in any situation, and unlike so many of his holdover receivers, Smith doesn't need the ball thrown right on the money to catch it. He's acrobatic and can make a quarterback look good, as opposed to the other way around. Quarterbacks love that.
Part of Smith's choice here also has to do with the Panthers' pass defense. Former first-round pick Antoine Cason, signed in the off-season from the Arizona Cardinals, has been targeted 22 times in pass coverage for 17 completions, 153 yards and a touchdown. On the other side, second-year cornerback Melvin White is faring much better. But he's still pretty green, and Smith probably delighted catching passes against him in training camp and practice the way he does Chykie Brown here in Baltimore. I don't see who's going to shut him down (or up).
Even when you take away the 15 yards for the inevitable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he'll take against his former team, Smith will be the game's leading receiver with a touchdown grab mixed in.
2. Running back Bernard Pierce
He's been benched for Justin Forsett in Week 1 and was inactive with a thigh injury in Week 3 against Cleveland while rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro made his claim for featured running back role. In between, Pierce showed glimpses of the back the Ravens clearly thought could shoulder the load in place of Ray Rice — at least for the first two weeks of the season.
Now with three running backs vying to carry one ball, Pierce enters Week 4 with what could be his last good chance to make this job his own. After failing to stake his claim in his second year, Pierce might soon be out of chances to show he can take over for Rice.
To be clear, he is. He's faster than Taliaferro and stronger than Forsett, who could still be effective as the change-of-pace back. Pierce is well equipped to take advantage of a Carolina run defense that's proven porous in recent weeks. Including last week, when LeVeon Bell and LeGarette Blount combined for 250 yards for the Steelers, the Panthers have allowed nearly 150 yards rushing a game. For Pierce to take advantage, he'll have to run inside and run behind the Ravens' guards. I think he will to the tune of 110 yards and a score.
3. Quarterback Cam Newton
In Newton, the former Heisman Trophy winner, first overall draft pick and 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year, the Ravens face the best quarterback of the first quarter of their schedule. He presents a lot of problems for the Ravens' uneven defense. In the passing game, Newton has the arm strength to beat the Ravens over the top, a weakness that the Browns exposed on Sunday. The Ravens have allowed four of eight completions on passes longer than 20 yards for 213 yards and a score. Newton has completed just one of five balls farther than 20 yards downfield, but I think this is where he and his receivers click.
In the same vein as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in his prime, Newton is a big physical quarterback who can evade a pass rush, even when it gets to him. Inside linebacker Daryl Smith said you have to wear your big-boy pads to tackle him, and pass rushers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Co. will need to not only keep him in the pocket, but wrap him up and bring him down.
He doesn't have many weapons, but I think it will be Newton wo keeps Carolina in this game to the tune of 275 yards and a couple scores. He'll also scramble for a big third down at some point that will leave the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium deflated.