Panthers schedule analysis: Toughest games, biggest surprise and some predictions

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Football is officially around the corner. The 2021-22 NFL schedule is here and full of 18 weeks worth of games.

For the Carolina Panthers, the schedule is full of noteworthy opponents. Matchups against familiar faces like Cam Newton and Ron Rivera. Trips to Dallas and New York. The revenge games are everywhere. Playing both the Washington Football Team and Buffalo Bills provides too many opportunities to go against familiar faces to count.

League-wide, the Panthers rank seventh in terms of the easiest schedule based on opponents’ winning percentage in 2020 (.472), which could help.

What are some of the takeaways and key games to note? Let’s break it down.

Panthers start with a bang vs. New York Jets

This isn’t exactly a sleepy Week 1 game. The NFL loves story lines and a meeting with the Jets to start off the season provides plenty of them. Of course, the obvious is quarterback Sam Darnold getting an early chance to play the team that drafted him third overall in 2018 and traded him to the Panthers this offseason.

“There will be two schools of thought, there will be the, hey, hopefully he’s amped up and ready to go and fired up to be playing the Jets,” Rhule said of Darnold facing his old team. “I’m hoping that he’s the same cool, calm, collected guy, each and every week that he’s a process guy that just attacks each week and makes nothing more of that game than anything else. I hope for him it’s all about the Carolina Panthers, I hope for him it’s all about Sam Darnold. It’s never about anyone or anything else, despite our history.”

Wide receiver Robby Anderson will also play against his former team for the first time, while Matt Rhule will coach against the team he interviewed with during his time at Baylor. It will also be an interesting early test for the Panthers in a winnable game. This will be the fourth straight year their season has started at Bank of America Stadium.

Other Panthers facing their former team include Frankie Luvu, Trenton Cannon and Pat Eflein.

Panthers have 1 prime-time game

In a non-surprising turn of events, the Panthers aren’t scheduled to see much national television. Outside of the Week 3 “Thursday Night Football” game in Houston, the team has only one other game scheduled after the 1 pm window — Week 10 in Arizona. There’s a slight chance the Week 15 game in Buffalo could get flexed, but that, uh, seems like a stretch considering its two non-conference opponents late in the season (the entire league does not put as much importance on the Carolina to Buffalo connection).

Carolina is one of eight teams with only one prime-time game.

The non-conference game on Thursday is a bit abnormal, but no matter what happens with Deshaun Watson in the coming months, he will certainly be a topic of conversation for that game.

How about the holidays?

The only holiday Carolina plays on this year is Halloween with a Week 8 game at Atlanta. It is always spooky when the Panthers play the Falcons.

Other than that, Carolina plays in Miami the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The day after Christmas will feature the Panthers hosting the Buccaneers and the day after New Years Day will include a game in New Orleans. It will be a party down there.

Panthers have reunions with Cam Newton, coach

The Panthers will welcome back a couple of familiar faces over a short stretch in the middle of the season. The New England Patriots and Newton are scheduled to be at Bank of America Stadium in Week 9. Newton will have competition for the starting quarterback job from rookie Mac Jones. Newton has yet to play his former team after a less than amicable departure, and whether or not he will actually be starting Nov. 7 is a big question mark. Team owner David Tepper referenced wanting to one day have Newton retire as a Panther this offseason.

Just two weeks later, Washington will visit the Panthers. This will mark the first game for coach Ron Rivera in Charlotte since being fired in 2019. Former general manager Marty Hurney is also now in Washington. Both of these, games, however, are scheduled to be 1 p.m. Sunday kickoffs.

A late bye ... again

Last season, the Panthers’ bye week did not come until December. This year, the Panthers’ bye week yet again does not come until the first week of December, in fact it’s the exact same week as last year. It’s a just little better with a 17-game season.

In 2020, the late bye severely hurt a young Panthers team that needed a bit of a break. We’ll see what impact it has this year.

Tough stretch to end it

After that quite late bye week, the Panthers have an incredibly tough stretch to end the season. If this team doesn’t get out of the gates quickly, things will get gloomy.

Four of six division games fall between Week 14-18.

Following a game vs. Atlanta, Carolina will travel to Buffalo (big game in the snow), host the Buccaneers, visit the Saints and then host the Buccaneers to end the season. Three of those final four games are on the road. That’s also three playoff teams to end the season, while the team only plays six 2020 playoff teams all year. Waiting to face the defending Super Bowl champions until twice in the final quarter of the year is never ideal.

Plus, history is not on the Panthers’ side. Since 2016, the team is 7-17 (29.2%) in games played in December and January, worst in the league.

Surprise win: Give me Week 4 in Dallas. I think the Panthers could get off to a hot start, outside of a tough early game vs. New Orleans, like the team did last year. It’s an easier first portion of the schedule and a second straight 3-2 start seems doable.

Game to keep an eye on: Week 10 at Arizona. Yes, this will already be a tough matchup. The Cardinals have only upgraded this season, but it falls between the two biggest revenge games circled on the roster — New England and Washington. With a trip out west in between those home games, this will be a tough one. One note: Big revenge opportunity for Haason Reddick.

NFC South standings prediction:

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  2. New Orleans Saints

  3. Carolina Panthers

  4. Atlanta Falcons

Tom Brady and pretty much the entire Buccaneers squad is back. Let’s not make this difficult.

Early Panthers record prediction

8-9: This year presents an opportunity to take a step in the right direction, but the late bye and tough final quarter of the season will make things difficult. This team hasn’t had a winning season since 2017, but the record should get close in 2021. There will be lessons learned from the number of close games lost last year. The record will go up from 5-11, but no playoff appearance just yet. There’s still work to be done.

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