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2013 CAROLINA PANTHERS PREVIEW

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2013 Carolina Panthers: Game-by-game schedule analysis

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Streeter Lecka - GETTY
The Panthers are scheduled to face the Atlanta Falcons and tight end Tony Gonzalez twice this season as NFC South rivals.

Week 1: Seattle Seahawks

Date: Sept. 8, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Seattle leads 4-2

Last meeting: Lost 19-12, 2012

Storyline: The Panthers have the worst opening-game winning percentage of all teams in the NFL (6-12, .333), and a win against Seattle would do more than just help that stat. The Seahawks are NFC title contenders that won a close game against the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium last year. A win for Carolina would mean a fast start against a top-tier team and a tone-setter for the season.

Player to watch: QB Russell Wilson dazzled in the second half of last season while he continued to surprise his doubters. Wilson is always a threat to run, and he may be an even greater threat with the loss of WR Percy Harvin for the first six weeks of the season.

Week 2: at Buffalo Bills

Date: Sept. 15, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Buffalo leads 4-1

Last meeting: Lost 20-9, 2009

Storyline: Carolina lucked out on its schedule by getting the Buffalo trip early in the season as opposed to playing at a snowy Ralph Wilson Stadium later. Be it undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel or first-round pick E.J. Manuel, the Bills will have an unproven quarterback under center against the Panthers. Buffalo has a new coach in Doug Marrone and Carolina will have just one game of tape to prepare for the Bills.

Players to watch: RB C.J. Spiller may have been the most misused back in the NFL in his first two seasons before breaking out last year with a Pro Bowl season with 1,244 rushing yards. Spiller averaged 6 yards per rush last year and he’ll be a great test for the Panthers’ front four.

Week 3: vs. New York Giants

Date: Sept. 22, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Tied at 4-4

Last meeting: Lost 36-7, 2012

Storyline: The Giants came into Charlotte last year and embarrassed the Panthers on national television in prime time. Don’t think the Panthers will be forgetting that. Eli Manning and Co. are coming off a disappointing year by recent standards after not making the playoffs while the Panthers will look for revenge.

Player to watch: DE Jason Pierre-Paul should be healthy by Week 3 when the Giants come to town. Pierre-Paul, who is recovering from offseason back surgery, looks to get back to his 2011 form when he racked up 16.5 sacks. He could wreak havoc along the Panthers’ offensive line.

• Week 4: Bye

Week 5: at Arizona Cardinals

Date: Oct. 6, 4:05 p.m., FOX

Series record: Carolina leads 8-4

Last meeting: Lost 28-21, 2011

Storyline: Cam Newton returns to the site of Auburn’s national championship and his first NFL loss when the Panthers visit Glendale. Newton passed for 422 yards and accounted for three touchdowns but it wasn’t enough to lift the Panthers to an opening-day win in 2011. That game still eats at Newton in a stadium that carries both good and bad memories for the quarterback.

Player to watch: CB Patrick Peterson will likely be on Steve Smith duty for most of the game, and the 23-year-old already has two Pro Bowls under his belt after picking off seven passes last season. He’s also first on the depth chart at punt returner, where he’s taken four punts back for touchdowns in his short career.

Week 6: at Minnesota Vikings

Date: Oct. 13, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Minnesota leads 6-4

Last meeting: Lost 24-21, 2011

Storyline: Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson set a goal of 2,500 rushing yards for this season and all eyes will be on him this year. He rushed for 83 yards against the Panthers in their last meeting but had 76 yards receiving on five catches. Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will likely game-plan around the league’s best back and force QB Christian Ponder to try to beat the Panthers.

Player to watch: LT Matt Kalil is a former fourth-overall pick and the younger brother of Panthers Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. Kalil has done a great job of keeping an underachieving Ponder clean in the pocket, and he’ll have his hands full against Greg Hardy, who’s playing in a contract year.

Week 7: vs. St. Louis Rams

Date: Oct. 20, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Carolina leads 11-8

Last meeting: Lost 20-10, 2010

Storyline: The Rams don’t have strong offensive weapons around QB Sam Bradford, and that has the Panthers’ defense salivating. Many teams coveted WR Tavon Austin, and he could be the NFL’s next great slot receiver, but that’s about it for St. Louis, which competes in one of the toughest divisions (NFC West) in football.

Player to watch: DE Chris Long is coming off an 11.5-sack season last year that saw him also rack up 50 quarterback hurries. Jordan Gross will have to be on his game at left tackle to keep Newton safe in the pocket against Long.

Week 8: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Date: Oct. 24, 8:25 p.m., NFLN

Series record: Carolina leads 14-11

Last meeting: Lost 27-21, 2012

Storyline: The last time Carolina visited Raymond James Stadium, the Panthers sputtered on offense and gained just 10 rushing yards despite a backfield full of rushing threats. A Greg Schiano-led Bucs team now has a year on tape and the Panthers may be more prepared for them when they play in their first prime-time game of the season.

Player to watch: QB Josh Freeman may not be the starting quarterback for Tampa Bay come Week 8. The Bucs have given former N.C. State QB Mike Glennon plenty of reps this preseason, and if Freeman can’t deliver in his fifth NFL season, there may be a change under center.

Week 9: vs. Atlanta Falcons

Date: Nov. 3, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Atlanta leads 23-13

Last meeting: Won 30-20, 2012

Storyline: Newton told an Atlanta newspaper this summer that he was still an Atlanta Falcons fan after having grown up in suburban Atlanta. But he said there’s twice a year that he’s not, and Week 9 of the 2013 season is one of them. Atlanta will likely still be the class of the NFC South when the Panthers finally play their rivals in the second half of the year

Player to watch: TE Tony Gonzalez will be making his last hurrah this season – even though everyone thought he did that last season. Gonzalez is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and possibly the best tight end in the league history. Last year against Carolina he caught 13 passes for 112 yards in two games.

Week 10: at San Francisco 49ers

Date: Nov. 10, 4:05 p.m., FOX

Series record: Carolina leads 10-7

Last meeting: Won 23-20, 2010

Storyline: Colin Kaepernick vs. Cam Newton. The story really writes itself. The two quarterbacks have similar styles and body builds, but Kaepernick, who played with little fanfare at Nevada, already has a Super Bowl trip on his resume. Compare that to Newton, with a Heisman Trophy but a 13-19 NFL record, and there’s even more pressure on Carolina’s quarterback to start winning now.

Player to watch: LG Mike Lupati was named an All-Pro last year during San Francisco’s NFC title run after clogging up holes for Kaepernick and opening them for RB Frank Gore. He’ll be going up against Panthers rookie tackle Star Lotulelei, who showed great improvement on his pass rushing this preseason.

Week 11: vs. New England Patriots

Date: Nov. 18, 8:40 p.m., ESPN

Series record: New England leads 3-2

Last meeting: Lost 20-10, 2009

Storyline: From a fan’s perspective, it’s probably the most anticipated game of the season for the Panthers. Perennial playoff contenders New England travel to what will be a sold-out Bank of America Stadium for Monday Night Football. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have lost to the Panthers just once in their four meetings.

Player to watch: LB Brandon Spikes will be making his first homecoming trip with the Patriots. The former Boiling Springs Crest standout will roam the middle of the Patriots’ defense against his former Florida teammate Newton.

Week 12: at Miami Dolphins

Date: Nov. 24, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Miami leads 4-0

Last meeting: Lost 24-17, 2009

Storyline: Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula will bring his offense into Sun Life Stadium to face the Dolphins, the team his father, Don, coached for more than two decades. There will be plenty of emotions for Shula facing the team he grew up cheering for, but none of that will matter come game time.

Player to watch: WR Mike Wallace is probably the fastest wide receiver in the game today, which means whoever is playing cornerback and safety for the Panthers in Week 12 will have their hands full. Wallace is poised for a breakout year as Ryan Tannehill’s top target.

Week 13: vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Date: Dec. 1, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Carolina leads 14-11

Last meeting: Lost 27-21, 2012

Storyline: The Bucs swept Carolina in two close finishes last year, including the second game at Carolina that went to overtime. The Panthers gave up 11 points in the final four minutes of last year’s contest to lose in overtime on a Dallas Clark touchdown catch.

Player to watch: CB Darrelle Revis ranks among the top cornerbacks of his generation and he’ll terrorize the NFC South this season. Revis, who has 19 career interceptions and 98 pass defenses, will ease into the season while recovering from an ACL tear but should be healthy by the time the Panthers play the Bucs a second time.

Week 14: at New Orleans Saints

Date: Dec. 8, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Carolina leads 19-17

Last meeting: Won 44-38, 2012

Storyline: Last year, Carolina swept the Saints, who had the league’s worst defense in history. New Orleans has its coach back in Sean Payton, and he gives the Saints a chance to once again contend for the division title even with a weak defense.

Player to watch: DE Cam Jordan was able to apply pressure to Newton in the two teams’ first meeting last year, and even though the defense may be one of the worst in the league, Jordan will still be a factor the Panthers’ offensive line must stop.

Week 15: vs. New York Jets

Date: Dec. 15, 4:05 p.m., CBS

Series record: New York leads 3-2

Last meeting: Lost 17-6, 2009

Storyline: Who knows what the Jets will look like, who will be the quarterback or if Rex Ryan will even be the coach this late in the year? If the Jets’ regular season looks anything like its preseason, New York will be the laughing stock of the league as Ryan enters what many believe to be a lame duck year as head coach.

Player to watch: First-round pick Sheldon Richardson was thought to be the Panthers’ pick in April’s draft by many scouts. The former Missouri defensive tackle went one spot ahead of Carolina’s selection at 13th, leaving the Panthers with Lotulelei, who was at the top of their board.

Week 16: vs. New Orleans Saints

Date: Dec. 22, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Carolina leads 19-17

Last meeting: Won 44-38, 2012

Storyline: This game could very well have playoff implications for one or both teams fighting for either the division title or a wild card spot. Carolina doesn’t play an NFC South opponent until Week 8, so there will be plenty of sorting to do in the division in the second half of the schedule.

Player to watch: QB Drew Brees, though 0-2 against Carolina last season, picked apart the Panthers’ defense for 721 passing yards and five touchdowns (and threw three interceptions) in two games last year. Carolina won’t be able to stop Brees, who holds the single-season passing yards mark, but the Panthers hope they’ll be able to contain him like last season.

Week 17: at Atlanta Falcons

Date: Dec. 29, 1 p.m., FOX

Series record: Atlanta leads 23-13

Last meeting: Won 30-20, 2012

Storyline: The two rivals meet in the regular-season finale at the Georgia Dome in what could be another playoff decider like the Saints game the week before. It’s also the sight of last year’s Week 4 last-minute win by Atlanta when Roddy White hauled in a 59-yard pass from the Atlanta 1 over Haruki Nakamura. It’s a play that still makes Panthers fans cringe.

Player to watch: The Falcons added veteran RB Steven Jackson this offseason, and the back will be looking for the first winning season of his career. Jackson has posted 1,000-yard rushing seasons every year since 2005 and replaces fellow veteran back Michael Turner, who had a down year last year.

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