A game-by-game breakdown of the Carolina Panthers schedule for 2018, including a killer stretch of three games in December:
Sept. 9: Dallas at Carolina, 4:25 p.m.: The first game of the David Tepper era, and naturally it’s one of Carolina’s more highly-anticipated season openers in years. As for the actual game, the best matchup to watch is Carolina’s third-ranked rushing defense from last season against Dallas’ No. 2-ranked running attack. Mobile quarterback Dak Prescott and especially running back Ezekiel Elliott will give a Thomas Davis-less Panthers defense fits, but Shaq Thompson is a more-than-capable fill-in. Dallas is fairly devoid of pass catchers though, so it should be a good way for Carolina’s revamped secondary to ease into the year ...
Sept. 16: Carolina at Atlanta, 1 p.m.: ... or not. So much for easing in, right? Divisional play begins early this season, and while a Week 2 matchup with Matt Ryan and Co. may not seem pivotal, the result here will absolutely factor into the playoff picture by season’s end. Receiver Julio Jones has shredded Carolina secondaries in the past, and this year may be no different. The Falcons offense wasn’t quite up to its Super Bowl standard last season, but it’ll be a real challenge for new Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington to contain all of Atlanta’s weapons.
Sept. 23: Cincinnati at Carolina, 1 p.m.: Another week, another superstar receiver – this time Cincinnati’s A.J. Green – to test the secondary. Green is enough of a veteran that he could really overpower some of the younger corners and safeties on Carolina’s roster… if only he had an average offense around him. Quarterback Andy Dalton is coming off one of his worst seasons, and Green can only do damage if the ball’s in his hands. Expect Carolina’s litany of pass-rushers to make it an uncomfortable afternoon for Dalton and the Bengals’ patchwork offensive line. A 3-0 record at the bye might be a stretch, but the Panthers realistically need to win two of these first three games to keep pace in the ultra-competitive NFC.
Sept. 30: BYE
Oct. 7: New York Giants at Carolina, 1 p.m.*: Coming off an early bye, we should know by this point in the season if Carolina’s pass defense is up to snuff. If so, there might be a prayer of shutting down receiver Odell Beckham Jr., or at least of containing the highest paid receiver in football. If not, this one could turn ugly. Eli Manning is turnover-prone, but with Beckham, Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram to throw to — not to mention running back Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 overall draft pick, in the backfield — he won’t lack for options. The way the defense holds up in this game will tell us a lot about their fortitude for the rest of the season.
Oct. 14: Carolina at Washington, 1 p.m.*: Since Josh Norman left for Washington, he has only played his former team once, a 26-15 loss in 2016. Watching him compete with Devin Funchess will be a treat, but Carolina has enough weapons that it should be fine offensively even if Norman masks Funchess. Alex Smith’s propensity for short passes and checkdowns will mean more coverage assignments from the Panthers linebackers, but with Thomas Davis active for the first time after a four-game suspension, the rotation should at least be fresher.
Oct. 21: Carolina at Philadelphia, 1 p.m.*: Carolina hosted the Super Bowl champs last season, but a combination of Carson Wentz’s three touchdowns and Cam Newton’s three interceptions doomed the Panthers. The fact that Carolina’s running backs only had one yard rushing didn’t help either. Expect Torrey Smith to be fired up for the rematch against his former team, but the Eagles’ defense is no less intimidating than a season ago. If Newton plays this year like Wentz did last, Carolina has a chance to upset the reigning Super Bowl winners for the second consecutive season.
Oct. 28: Baltimore at Carolina, 1 p.m.*: The Ravens are something of a wild card this season, given their offensive reinvention over the summer. Michael Crabtree and John Brown should give Joe Flacco two solid outside options, and Hayden Hurst will test Carolina’s defense down the seam given his recovery from injury. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore’s less-than-stout rushing defense could make this a breakout game for Christian McCaffrey … if that hasn’t already happened, of course. One last thing worth mentioning: if this one gets close, it would be a terrific late-game kicking battle between Graham Gano and Justin Tucker.
Nov. 4: Tampa Bay at Carolina, 1 p.m.*: Carolina’s schedule is definitely back-loaded on divisional games, as its second one doesn’t come until Week 9. Tampa is also a clear fourth team in the stacked NFC South, but don’t underestimate the Bucs. They have playmakers at every level of the defense — Jason Pierre-Paul and Gerald McCoy on the line, Lavonte David at linebacker, and Brent Grimes in the secondary — who are capable of creating turnovers. That said, Tampa’s offense is fairly void of those same playmakers (outside of Mike Evans), so Carolina’s defense should be able to contain fairly well.
Nov. 8: Carolina at Pittsburgh (Thursday, 8:20 p.m.): It’s a short week for the Panthers, and on the road, and against a Super Bowl contender … or in other words, arguably the toughest game to date. Pittsburgh still has one of the best “trios” in football with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell, and that threesome will give any defense nightmares. James Bradberry will face a number of the league’s best receivers this season, but locking down Brown will be especially crucial to Carolina’s chances in this game. This won’t be a typical Steelers team on defense, as fewer notable veterans are around, which could turn this one into a Thursday night shootout.
Nov. 18: Carolina at Detroit, 1 p.m.*: The Panthers travel the fewest miles of any team this year, and their trip to Detroit is actually the longest of the regular season. But coming off a few extra days rest, Ron Rivera should have his group more than prepared to take on first-year coach Matt Patricia’s team. Detroit’s offense, tailored for Matt Stafford’s tremendous arm strength and gunslinger mentality, has the potential to toast Carolina’s secondary. But Cam Newton had one of his best games of last season against the Lions, so whether or not he can repeat that will go a long ways toward deciding this one.
Nov. 25: Seattle at Carolina, 1 p.m.*: Ah, a rivalry rekindled. In 2017, for the first time since Newton was a rookie, he didn’t have to face the Seahawks, and boy will he be facing a different team. The once-vaunted Legion of Boom has been dismantled, something that should have QB1 excited. On offense, Russell Wilson still runs the show, but his supporting cast has changed. Seattle’s offensive line is as questionable as Carolina’s, so a sack-fest wouldn’t be surprising.
Dec. 2: Carolina at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.*: Let the NFC South chaos truly begin. Four of Carolina’s final five opponents are within the division, so no matter how well the team has played to this point, the final five weeks will have a critical role in determining where (or if) the Panthers land in the playoffs. Jameis Winston will have had more time back from suspension to gel on offense, but he’s yet to prove any real consistency. This one’s not quite a “trap” game, but regardless of where Carolina stands coming in, it needs a victory just to keep pace in the division.
Dec. 9: Carolina at Cleveland, 1 p.m.*: Don’t let Cleveland’s 1-31 record the past two seasons disguise the obvious additions the Browns made this summer. Either No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield or Tyrod Taylor represent a major upgrade at quarterback, and there’s any number of capable running backs for them to hand off to. Likewise, Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon are real nightmare matchups on the outside, and if healthy, could shred Carolina’s defense. The Browns defense is still a work in progress, and a shootout here would seemingly benefit Carolina, but Cleveland is far from the dumpster fire it has been the last two seasons.
Dec. 17: New Orleans at Carolina (Monday, 8:15 p.m.): The Panthers lost all three of their matchups against the Saints last season, including to end their season in the wild card round of the playoffs, and their reward for that … is playing New Orleans twice in three weeks to end the year. Yikes. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram should pick up right where they left off offensively (once Ingram returns from suspension, that is), and it’ll take all of Carolina’s linebackers to contain them. Drew Brees may be 39, but he can still sling the football with the best of them — really, it’ll take a New Orleans misstep or two (which never came last season) for the Panthers to have a chance.
Dec. 23: Atlanta at Carolina, 1 p.m.*: This three-game stretch may be one of the toughest in football, period. First-round receiver Calvin Ridley should be accustomed to NFL defenses by now, and a matchup between him and Carolina’s No. 2 corner, rookie speedster Donte Jackson, would be loads of fun to watch. At this point in the year, we’ll know if Atlanta’s offense is more in line with the 2016 or 2017 version — Panthers fans better pray for the latter. The one solace in this daunting stretch of schedule? Two of these three games are at home.
Dec. 30: Carolina at New Orleans, 1 p.m.*: Whether it’s a playoff bye, other playoff positioning, or a playoff berth altogether, this game is bound to have major implications. There’s something challenging mentally and physically about playing the same team twice in two weeks, especially when both matchups are so high-intensity. For all the big names on both sides, from Cam Newton to Cam Jordan, Marshon Lattimore to Greg Olsen, Kamara to Christian McCaffrey, this one – with all the circumstances surrounding it — will come down to one thing: Who wants it more? If only this one was at home ...
*—Subject to change