Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers 2019 schedule analysis: Toughest matchups? Trap games?

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) catches a pass in front of New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) in the first quarter of a 10-3 preseason loss.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) catches a pass in front of New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) in the first quarter of a 10-3 preseason loss. AP

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A game-by-game breakdown of the Carolina Panthers’ 2019 schedule:

Week 1 (Sept. 8) — Los Angeles Rams (13-3)

The Panthers host the Super Bowl runners-up to kick off 2019, and that should be a stress test for all this team’s remaining question marks. Can a rebuilt secondary defend last year’s second-highest scoring offense? Can a not-yet-cohesive offensive line stifle defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year? And what about Cam Newton’s effectiveness? The Rams are favorites to make it back to the final week of the year for a reason, and the Panthers will have to play a near-perfect game to beat them.

Week 2 (Thursday, Sept. 12) — Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

A short week early in the season can be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the Panthers get their Thursday night game out of the way before the true physical toll of an NFL season can kick in. On the other hand, if that Rams game goes south, the team will be crunched for time in what becomes a crucial divisional game. And don’t discount the impact new coach Bruce Arians will have on the Bucs’ downfield passing game. The best part? This is Gerald McCoy’s first crack at his former team — expect him to play with some added fury.

Week 3 (Sept. 22) — at Arizona Cardinals (3-13)

Cam Newton vs. Kyler Murray, in a matchup of two of the league’s more dynamics running quarterbacks. The Cardinals desperately needed an injection of talent at the quarterback position, and Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, figures to fit the bill long-term. The question is whether or not the Air Raid offense new coach Kliff Kingsbury wants to run is fully operational after just two weeks of fine-tuning. If so, Carolina’s defensive backfield could be in for a long day. Star corner Patrick Peterson will miss the game due to suspension.

Week 4 (Sept. 29) — at Houston Texans (11-5)

This would be a good game for the Panthers to prove they’ve fixed their pass rush. For as good as Deshaun Watson is — he’s thrown for the 12th-most touchdowns of any quarterback in their first two NFL seasons — his offensive line hasn’t always been able to protect. If Brian Burns, Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin and Co. want to cause some mayhem, this would be apt time to do so.

Week 5 (Oct. 6) — Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Not that you would necessarily call this a “trap game,” but the week before the team’s first trip to London? The Jaguars are a drastically different team than they were a season ago, largely by nature of signing former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles this spring. Can he reignite what has been one of the NFL’s more stagnant offenses? Defensively, Jacksonville is stacked at all three levels. Like, Pro Bowl-caliber talent along the line, at linebacker and in the secondary. This could end up being the toughest defense the Panthers face all season.

Week 6 (Oct. 13) — at Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London (5-11)

London! Aside from the sheer cool factor of getting to play in England, this game has pretty substantial divisional implications. Win both early games against the Bucs, and the Panthers will have an early edge on the division. Lose one or both, and later games against the Saints and Falcons suddenly become much more crucial — but not any easier to win. Also, how does the team deal with the time change and jet lag? That may seem trivial, but for professional players with such rigid schedules, that’s a real concern.

Week 7: Bye

Week 8 (Oct. 27) — at San Francisco 49ers (4-12)

The bye falls at an opportune time for the Panthers, sandwiched between the team’s two farthest road games. San Francisco is a bit of a wild card heading into 2019, just because it played without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for most of last season. This will be Garoppolo’s first full season as a starter. But he will be backed up by one of the NFL’s deepest stable of running backs, which means Carolina’s revamped defensive line will have a challenge on its hands.

Week 9 (Nov. 3) — Tennessee Titans (9-7)

Will Marcus Mariota or Ryan Tannehill be the starter at this point in the season? Either way, the Titans seem prepared to run their offense through 247-pound running back Derrick Henry. That’s a load for any one player, but that sort of battering means Carolina’s linebacking pair of Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson have to be ready.

Week 10 (Nov. 10) — at Green Bay Packers (6-9-1)

A taste of the elements here, as the Panthers travel to Wisconsin — right as winter sets in. But snow and cold aside, the biggest test for the Panthers will be finding a way to slow Aaron Rodgers. Slow, not stop, because we’re being realistic. The Packers have taken some steps back in recent seasons, but Rodgers can break out at any point. Also, Davante Adams and James Bradberry will be a fun matchup.

Week 11 (Nov. 17) — Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

And here’s where things get interesting. Four of the Panthers’ final six games come against Atlanta and New Orleans, both of whom have had Carolina’s number the past few seasons. Last season, the Panthers struggled to defend the Falcons’ backup running backs, and with starter Devonta Freeman back in the fold, it’ll be interesting to see if a new 3-4 scheme makes any difference. Also, second-year receivers Calvin Ridley and DJ Moore will be on opposite sidelines, which should make for some overblown comparisons.

Week 12 (Nov. 24) — at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

This is as pivotal a two-week stretch as the Panthers face all season. This is a fantasy football dream matchup, with 1,000-1,000 threats Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara going head-to-head for the first time. Drew Brees had the Saints one missed pass interference call away from the Super Bowl a season ago, so this team should be as motivated as any team in the NFL. Will the Saints go scorched earth on the Panthers for what feels like the 10th straight time, or can Carolina earn a statement win?

Week 13 (Dec. 1) — Washington (7-9)

Remember when we were talking about trap games? With a rematch against the Falcons looming, this would be one of those games that gets overlooked. Washington’s quarterback situation is dire, considering journeyman Case Keenum earned the starting nod over first-round rookie Dwayne Haskins. The best part of this one? Josh Norman returns to Charlotte for the first time since his sudden departure.

Week 14 (Dec. 8) — at Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

What more is there to say? This is the time of year that divisions are won and lost. Even if the Panthers’ NFC South odds aren’t looking great at this point, you need these late wins to compete for a wild-card berth.

Week 15 (Dec. 15) — Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

The Carolina-Seattle rivalry isn’t what it was a few years ago, when Russell Wilson and Cam Newton were at their peaks and regularly meeting in the postseason. But that doesn’t make this game any less important. Seattle will play the same smash-face brand of offense it has since Wilson became the starter, and his shiftiness always causes problems for Carolina’s defensive front. But the Legion of Boom is long gone, meaning Newton may finally be able to throw against a Seattle secondary.

Week 16 (Dec. 22) — at Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

What would’ve been a thrilling matchup between the first picks in the 2011 and 2012 drafts instead becomes ... Jacoby Brissett’s return to North Carolina. The Colts might not be Super Bowl contenders in lieu of Andrew Luck’s retirement, but their backup quarterback situation was among the league’s best. Now they get to test that theory. Brissett has a staple of receivers, including ex-Panther Devin Funchess.

Week 17 (Dec. 29) — New Orleans Saints (13-3)

It all comes down to the Saints, again. This game could determine who makes the playoffs, who wins the division, who earns playoff byes, and so on. There’s a chance one team or the other already has their situation in tow, in which case you could see New Orleans rest starters like it did in the 2018 season finale. But would they if there’s a chance to keep Carolina out of the playoffs?

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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