The Sept. 10 season-opener in San Francisco marks the sixth time in seven NFL seasons Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera starts his season on the road, including last year’s tone-setting defeat in Denver.
But don’t fret, Panthers fans. The 2017 schedule has a few very favorable factors. For example, Carolina could very well take a three-game win streak to New England in Week 4.
With their opener against San Francisco, then back-to-back home games against Buffalo and New Orleans, the Panthers start the year against three teams that missed last year’s playoffs and two that are dealing with coaching changes and roster rebuilds.
Here’s a look at the 2017 schedule, and which key matchup to watch during each game:
Sept. 10: At San Francisco 49ers
Not only will rookie first-round pick Christian McCaffrey make his NFL debut near his old Stanford stomping grounds (and against former teammate and fellow first-rounder Solomon Thomas), the Panthers will face a familiar scheme. Kyle Shanahan, formerly the offensive coordinator for NFC South foe Atlanta, is San Francisco’s new head coach.
Sept. 17: Vs. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo playfully earned the nickname “Carolina North” this offseason after a handful of staffers and players followed former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to his first head coaching job. Carolina will see former assistant general manager Brandon Beane (now the Bills’ GM), former receiver Philly Brown and former fullback Mike Tolbert when they host Buffalo.
Sept. 24: Vs. New Orleans Saints
All spring, Carolina looked for ways to replace the speed of former receiver Ted Ginn Jr. Against the Saints, they’ll see him as one of veteran quarterback Drew Brees’ new weapons.
Oct. 1: At New England Patriots
For the second straight season, Carolina will face off early in the year against a defending Super Bowl champion. This time, the Panthers’ second-year corners will face their toughest test so far against Tom Brady’s arm and slew of offensive weapons.
Oct. 8: At Detroit Lions
Carolina will face a very well-rounded Detroit Lions offense on the road, including quarterback Matt Stanford, who recently signed a deal that made him the highest-paid quarterback in NFL history.
Oct. 12: Vs. Philadelphia Eagles
After seeing Brady, Carolina’s secondary has the chance to make this game tough for young quarterback Carson Wentz as he tries to find his footing in the league.
Oct. 22: At Chicago Bears
Carolina fans will see a familiar face in Chicago, as the Bears traded up to select former Tar Heel Mitch (now Mitchell) Trubisky. Sack artist Julius Peppers, another former Tar Heel, will get a chance to hassle the rookie and perhaps tack on another “L” to his now-preferred moniker.
Oct. 29: At Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This very well could turn into an offensive shootout between two of the most on-paper exciting teams in the league. Cam Newton and his new weapons will try to go shot-for-shot with Jameis Winston and his own new weapons.
Nov. 5: Vs. Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta made it all the way to the Super Bowl last season under Shanahan. But now they’ll face the hottest team in their conference with a brand-new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian.
Nov. 13: Vs. Miami Dolphins
Carolina’s offensive line will be tested on a Monday night against big, athletic Miami defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Panthers defense will have its hands full with running back Jay Ajayi and speedy wide receiver Kenny Stills.
Nov. 26: At New York Jets
Only a higher power knows who the Jets might have thrown in at quarterback by this time of the season, but whichever their option, the Panthers will be licking their chops at the chance to come out of the bye week with momentum.
Dec. 3: At New Orleans Saints
Carolina will get to go a second round against Brees and the Saints as conference play heats up. They’ll also see former backup middle linebacker A.J. Klein, now in a starting role, and future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson.
Dec. 10: Vs. Minnesota Vikings
Carolina plays the first of two games against teams from bitterly cold cities – at home – with this contest against Minnesota. The Panthers will be thankful they’ve seen so much of McCaffrey’s game, because his football doppelganger Dalvin Cook will be a hard Viking to handle.
Dec. 17: Vs. Green Bay Packers
In another stroke of scheduling luck, Carolina doesn’t have to go to Wisconsin in December. The team does have to square off against the surgeon himself, quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Dec. 24: Vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Newton vs. Winston, Round 2. This is the first of two must-wins for Carolina, which may have a shot at clinching a playoff berth by this point.
Dec. 31: At Atlanta Falcons
Carolina will spend New Year’s Eve in Atlanta’s brand-new stadium, but hopes to stun the Falcons in front of their home crowd and start a playoff run.