With the season quickly approaching, delving into the regular season schedule is becoming a daily ritual. Determining a team’s future win total often has as much to do with timing and scheduling as it does the squad’s overall talent. An opposing team on a short week following a Monday Night matchup is an entirely different animal than that same team following a timely bye. Facing a squad like the Saints in the N.O was damn near a death sentence, that same team went 2-6 away from the Mercedes Benz Superdome. So with all the talk of regression from the 12-4 campaign the Panthers recently waged, take a look at some of the games this season that could determine whether the defending NFC South champions will return to the playoffs for the 2014-15 season.
The Panthers started out the season 1-3 last year. While the slow start makes their season’s success more amazing, the team can ill afford another anemic beginning. The first four games are all against teams that failed to advance to the playoffs last season (Tampa Bay, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore). While the beginning of the season is relatively weak, the high turnover on offense combined with Cam’s recovery from injury will mean that the Panthers will have to fight the natural regression that can come with the aforementioned distractions.
The third game of the season features a Sunday Night Football appearance for the Panthers. A more prominent national TV schedule is a byproduct of the team’s surprising season last year. In addition to the Sunday night game, Carolina also has a Monday night game against the Eagles.
In fact, the Panthers have two nationally televised games this season. Moreover, the team has a Thursday night game against NFC South rival New Orleans. The Thursday night game comes in the middle of the most hellacious part of the schedule in weeks 7-11. The team faces the Packers, Seahawks, Saints, and Eagles in succession. Facing the league’s best QB, the defending champions, the most talented team in the division, and one of the NFL’s most potent offenses in consecutive weeks will be an incredible challenge. But look more closely at the layout of the schedule, and there is reason for optimism.
Although the Packers game is in Green Bay, it will be played in midway through October. The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field is much less daunting early in the season, and if a team has to go in there it’d be better before the weather becomes truly insufferable. Facing Aaron Rodgers in any time of year is hectic, and the moving parts on the Panthers secondary means that they will need to gel quickly to combat Green Bay’s latest gunslinger.
Next up is the reigning Super Bowl champions. Seattle and Carolina produced one of the most physically grueling tests of the season for either team last year. The Panthers fell 7-12 after a late DeAngelo Williams fumble sealed the team’s fate. With two bruising defenses, this game is sure to set off plenty of fireworks. A key addition, Percy Harvin, will be a new weapon for Russell Wilson; and the defense (led by the secondary self-dubbed the Legion of Boom) will be as scary as ever. As talented as the Seahawks are, the Panthers bring their own elite defense to battle. Moreover Seattle will have to make the trek across country to Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, a week after being on the road and facing divisional foe St. Louis. The Panthers will have a better chance to beat the Seahawks if they are a bit weary from their schedule, especially considering their team’s propensity for implementing physicality as a means to garner an edge.
The Panthers will stay in Charlotte the next week to go head up with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Last year the division rivals split the series, with each team winning at home. With the Saints Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde high jinks, look for the trend of home team dominance to continue. Divisional games are always difficult to predict given the teams’ familiarity with one another; but if a playoff run is to be had, it must start with holding serve at home against fellow NFC South teams. Last year the Panthers were 5-1 against the NFC South. In the preceding year (one that saw the Panthers finish below .500), the team was 3-3 in those games.
The last of the Panthers’ 2014 Amen Corner comes in the form of the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles are coming off their own surprising season following both a coach and QB change. Chip Kelly installed a brand new offense and put Nick Foles at the head of it, replacing fan-favorite Mike Vick in the process. With Foles as their consistent starter (beginning in Oakland in early November), the Eagles averaged over 33 points per game. As fantastic as the defense was, such a contest will truly test the offense. The Panthers perceived weakness going into the season, if Carolina fails to adequately score against a pedestrian defense then it will tell the story for how the rest of the season will unfold.
Thankfully after the murderers’ row of weeks 7-11, the Panthers get a timely bye. While the offseason moves certainly haven’t inspired much hope for the season, the schedule set-up offers the team a chance to do better than some pundits expect. Finishing the four game part of the season at or above .500 will be key in the team’s chances to compete with the elite teams in the league and will serve as a catalyst for any postseason run.