Let’s take a closer look this week at the Carolina Panthers’ 2015 schedule that was just announced. Here’s my early take on each game.
At Jacksonville Sept. 13: The Panthers always seem to be in Florida for the season opener – this will be the third time in four years. Jacksonville was 3-13 last season and had the league’s most ineffective quarterback in Blake Bortles.
No NFL game is easy, but this is about as close to an easy road opener as you can get as long as the Panthers can control Bortles and his new target – tight end Julius Thomas. The last time Carolina opened with Jacksonville, incidentally, was the Panthers’ lone Super Bowl season.
Houston Sept. 20: The Panthers’ first home game will be a big test for Carolina’s offensive tackles, as J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney (who is supposed to be healthy by then) come at Cam Newton from the corners. Still, there’s a real chance here for Carolina to start the season 2-0.
New Orleans Sept. 27: The Saints game will give Carolina a very early look at one of its chief rivals. It was a stunning 41-10 win at New Orleans Dec. 7 that catapulted what had been a lousy 3-8-1 Carolina team toward the playoffs. New Orleans will be without longtime Carolina nemesis Jimmy Graham, but he shows up on the schedule three weeks later.
At Tampa Bay Oct. 4: A second straight divisional game for Carolina and it will be important, because there won’t be another one for two months. The Buccaneers were a woeful 2-14 last year and might be starting Jameis Winston. You have to figure that unless Carolina starts slowly – and Ron Rivera teams have a tendency to do just that – the Panthers should at least go 3-1 in September (beating the two bad teams from Florida and splitting with Houston and New Orleans).
At Seattle Oct. 18: A huge week. This game against the best team in the NFC in each of the past two years comes off a bye week. Rivera’s teams, however, have been horrible coming off bye weeks in his four years as Carolina’s head coach (0-4 and outscored 102-36). Last year’s post-bye ineptitude included two blocked punts returned for touchdowns at Minnesota.
As for Seattle, quarterback Russell Wilson has a new toy to play with in Graham. It’s hard to see Carolina winning in the toughest place to play in the NFL, but the Panthers almost have to get this one unless they want to face the possibility of going right back to Seattle during the playoffs.
Philadelphia Oct. 25: The first of Carolina’s two back-to-back primetime home games comes against Chip Kelly’s fast-break offense. Playing the Eagles at night in October will probably be a slight advantage – it’s doubtful anyone on Carolina’s defense is going to get that tired. Stopping DeMarco Murray will be the biggest key.
Indianapolis Nov. 2: The Panthers’ third straight difficult game features the Cam Newton-Andrew Luck matchup that was the reason this one got chosen for “Monday Night Football.” Jon Gruden is already getting his adjectives ready.
The Colts were 11-5 in 2014 and with Luck are one of the few teams who can dethrone New England in the AFC. I am betting this will be the Panthers’ home game the scalpers will make the second-most money on this season. As for No. 1. ...
Green Bay Nov. 8: Luck and Aaron Rodgers back-to-back in Bank of America Stadium? Yep. I hope Peanut Tillman is still holding up at this point, because cornerback Josh Norman will need the help.
The Packers destroyed Carolina a year ago at Lambeau Field, but this figures to be much closer. I am not sure the Panthers have ever faced a more difficult three-game homestand than the one that concludes with the Packers, who lost to Seattle in last season’s NFC title game.
At Tennessee Titans Nov. 15: Remember the Titans? They were a nasty 1-7 at home in Nashville in 2014. After that four-game stretch the Panthers come off of to play this one, this game looks like a breather on paper.
Washington Nov. 22: Washington ruled the airwaves in Charlotte before the Panthers were a glimmer in Jerry Richardson’s eye. The burgundy and gold faithful still has a lot of members in the Carolinas. As to whether Washington will be any good – well, the team was 4-12 in 2014 and it’s questionable whether Robert Griffin III will ever find his groove again.
At Dallas Nov. 26: The first Thanksgiving Day matchup for Carolina in 21 seasons is a testament to the Panthers’ higher national profile. Even if Greg Hardy serves his entire 10-game suspension, he will be back to play for Dallas against his former team. If I were a Carolina fan trying to choose one game to go to this season and money was no object, this would be the one.
At New Orleans Dec. 6: Finally, another NFC South game – the first of four in five weeks to close the season. Carolina will get 10 days off between games. But given the Panthers’ bad experiences with extra off time, Rivera should ban the term “mini-bye” from his vocabulary this week.
Atlanta Dec 13: The only home game in December will be very winnable. Norman’s sticky defense on Julio Jones was huge in this series last year and will be counted upon once again.
At New York Giants Dec. 20: Weather could be a factor in this late-season game in a game against a Giants team that went 6-10 in 2014 but is going to be better.
At Atlanta Dec. 27: Since Rivera’s first season in 2011, he is 15-3 in December. That ties him with New England’s Bill Belichick and Seattle’s Pete Carroll for the best record during that span. Carolina has no fear of playing in the Georgia Dome, and given this is a holiday weekend a number of Panther fans will make the four-hour trip.
Tampa Bay Jan. 3: Much like the season opener, the season closer is a game Carolina really ought to win. At home against Tampa Bay? If you don’t win that one, you don’t deserve to make the playoffs.
*–Subject to change