A game-by-game look at the Carolina Panthers’ 2015 schedule:
Sept. 13 – At Jaguars, 1 p.m. (Fox)
This is a great opening match for the members of the Panthers’ front seven who are either banged up or inexperienced. The Jaguars’ offense has been dreadful in recent years, and last year with then-rookie quarterback Blake Bortles they averaged just 289 yards per game, which was second-worst in the league. They added Julius Thomas, who should provide a good matchup with Thomas Davis. The Jags’ defense could be worse. They lost their best defensive tackle in Red Bryant and their first-round pick (Dante Fowler Jr.) is out for the season with a torn ACL. Maybe coach Gus Bradley will finally get things turned around this season after three years and just nine wins, but there’s not a lot of optimism in the stadium that took out seats for fans and put in pools to help avert eyes from what’s on the field.
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Sept. 20 – Texans, 1 p.m. (CBS)
The best defensive player in the NFL, and possibly the best player regardless of position in the league, visits Charlotte for the first time in his career. J.J. Watt stars on a formidable line along with Rock Hill native Jadeveon Clowney. If Watt isn’t rushing the passer, he’s batting the ball at the line. And when you worry about getting the ball over Watt, you have to remember Clowney could be coming on the other side. That’s the worst news for the Panthers. The good news is they’ll likely face an offense that is centered on Arian Foster’s running but is lacking Arian Foster (groin) and is led by quarterback Brian Hoyer, who has thrown 19 touchdowns to 19 interceptions in his career.
Sept. 27 – Saints, 1 p.m. (Fox)
No longer will fans be treated to Thomas Davis going against Jimmy Graham twice a season. But there’s still Drew Brees, and he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The Panthers know they’ll have to get a great pass rush on him because he releases the ball so quickly after the snap. Last year the Panthers sacked Brees six times in two games as the two teams split their series. This game gives the Panthers their first division game of the season, and it falls after two winnable games. Ron Rivera has never started 3-0 as a head coach with the Panthers. Could this be the year they finally get off to a legitimate fast start?
Oct. 4 – At Buccaneers, 1 p.m. (Fox)
This will be the first time Cam Newton has played against the Bucs since 2013. You’ll recall Derek Anderson went up against Tampa Bay both times last year as Newton battled injuries. You can’t get used to dealing with Gerald McCoy along the line and whatever Lavonte David wants to do on the outside at linebacker. You just have to try to contain them. Carolina is fortunate this year, though, since it gets Tampa in early October rather than early September, when the humidity is still thick. This year the Panthers will have three games of conditioning under their belts before they head for sticky central Florida.
Oct. 11 – Bye
Oct. 18 – At Seahawks, 4:05 p.m. (Fox)
Is the fifth time the charm? The Panthers have never beaten Seattle with Russell Wilson as the quarterback and Pete Carroll as the head coach, losing four times in the past three seasons (including the playoff loss in January). All the games have been tight in the fourth quarter, but all the games have ultimately gone to the Seahawks. Can the Panthers finally get over the hump and beat the two-time defending NFC champs? Or is this second tier where Carolina will forever sit until the Seahawks are dismantled by the salary cap?
Oct. 25 – Eagles, 8:30 p.m. (NBC)
Chip Kelly’s offense has given the Panthers fits in the past two years – once in the 2013 preseason and then last year in the 45-21 blowout on Monday Night Football, when Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden made smoothies in the broadcast booth to pass the time. Newton was sacked a career-high nine times as Rivera refused to get his injured quarterback out of harm’s way. Speaking of harm, the last time Philadelphia’s starting quarterback Sam Bradford was in Charlotte, he tore his ACL for a second time when he was with the Rams in 2013. The Eagles added the league’s best rusher from a year ago in DeMarco Murray and one of the good young linebackers in Kiko Alonso.
Nov. 2 – Colts, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Sports radio hosts won’t have to prepare any material for this Monday. It’s 2011 No. 1 pick Cam Newton vs. 2012 No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, who probably would have been the No. 1 pick in 2011 had he not stayed at Stanford for another season. Luck is without a doubt one of the best young quarterbacks in the league and will be paid as such next offseason. He has a great offense around him and West Charlotte product Pep Hamilton as the offensive coordinator. But the problem that plagued the Colts last year remains: How are they going to stop opposing offenses? Indianapolis’ defensive depth chart is like the opposite of a who’s who list, and the Colts did little in the offseason to make it better.
Nov. 8 – Packers, 1 p.m. (Fox)
When these teams met was last year it was 38-3 at the end of the third quarter before two garbage time Panthers touchdowns. The Packers so thoroughly trounced the Panthers that it made the divide between the NFC’s elite and wherever the Panthers stood clear. Now Aaron Rodgers, the best quarterback in football, will be without his favorite target, Jordy Nelson. No worries: Rodgers will just find other ways to beat you. Working in Carolina’s favor is it’s a home game rather than at Lambeau Field. But if they want clues on how to beat the Packers this year, they have no need to look at last year’s film.
Nov. 15 – At Titans, 1 p.m. (Fox)
Tennessee has been in such obscurity for so long that you probably don’t know much about the Titans past Marcus Mariota. Here are a few details: Running back Bishop Sankey is a hard runner who has been flying past people in the preseason. Left tackle Taylor Lewan plays with a mean streak when he finishes off blocks. The Titans are the team that signed Byron Bell but moved him to right tackle, where he belongs. Perrish Cox and Jason McCourtey hold down the back end of the defense. And Nissan Stadium is right on the Cumberland River, which should mean a cold breeze flowing through the stadium in mid-November.
Nov. 22 – Washington, 1 p.m. (Fox)
Who will Dale Earnhardt Jr. cheer for? The team of the Carolinas faces the team most of the Carolinas adopted as their own until 1995. The Panthers are 4-7 all-time against Washington but won each of the past three times they’ve played. Washington’s team is a mess right now. They just went with Kirk Cousins over Robert Griffin III after grinding the former Offensive Rookie of the Year into dust the past two seasons. But at least Cousins has Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to throw to. Washington has some good pieces in the defensive backfield, but its pass rush will be lacking after losing Junior Galette for the season with a torn Achilles. Will this season be karmic justice for Washington after its poor and borderline disrespectful handling of a quarterback it nearly sold the farm for just three years ago?
Nov. 26 – At Cowboys, 4:30 p.m. (CBS)
No shortage of storylines here. Most notably, this is Carolina’s first Thanksgiving Day game, and it comes in Dallas. Tony Romo looked last year like the quarterback we all know he can be, and Dez Bryant is established as an elite receiver. Dallas has one of the best offensive lines in football, and that will be tough for an iffy Panthers defensive line deep into the season. Greg Hardy will face his old team, which means plenty of pregame hugs and handshakes before he paints his face and becomes the Kraken. Did you know: The Panthers have beaten the Cowboys just once in 10 tries in the regular season, but have won both meetings in the playoffs.
Dec. 6 – At Saints, 1 p.m. (Fox)
The real fun begins as the NFL stacks December with divisional games and playoff implications. The Panthers have four divisional games in the final five, which will likely decide their playoff fate. They begin at the Superdome, with Newton facing old foe Cameron Jordan and an upgraded secondary in Jairus Byrd (who was injured last year) and cornerback Brandon Browner. Like every year, Carolina needs a quick lead to take the crowd out of it.
Dec. 13 – Falcons, 1 p.m. (Fox)
Last year Josh Norman limited Julio Jones to 10 catches on 19 targets for 117 yards and no touchdowns. Can that happen again this season? Norman wants to be a lockdown corner and considered among the league’s elite. But one good season isn’t enough. He must duplicate that kind of success this season in order to wear that crown and, ultimately, get a big second contract. If by mid-December Norman is replicating last year’s success and shuts down Jones again, Dave Gettleman may be wishing he had gotten that long-term deal done this summer.
Dec. 20 – At Giants, 1 p.m. (Fox)
This may be the only winter-weather game the Panthers play as Carolina takes a trip to the Meadowlands. The past two matchups have been lopsided, with the Panthers winning 38-0 in what seemed like a must-win game for Rivera in 2013 and falling 36-7 in a prime time game in 2012. There’s no telling what to expect out of Eli Manning, who can be elite some games and an interception machine in others. If Jon Beason stays healthy, he could face his former team as he controls the Giants defense. And, of course, it’s a homecoming for Dave Gettleman, who was an executive with the Giants for 15 years.
Dec. 27 – At Falcons, 1 p.m. (Fox)
If the Panthers are in the playoff hunt, this game will likely go a long way to deciding their fate. For a third straight year the Panthers travel to Atlanta in late December to face the Falcons. It’s the home of many Panthers, including Newton, Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis. This game means a little more for those Panthers, and it could mean everything with playoff implications on the line. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers can get after Matt Ryan like they have the past two years and force him into some bad throws.
Jan. 3 – Buccaneers, 1 p.m. (Fox)
The 2015 regular season stretches into 2016. Carolina will have to face three tall receivers in Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins in a matchup that would be tough for any defense. By this point Jameis Winston should have a solid rapport with all of those receivers and it’ll make life tough on Carolina’s secondary. But Tampa was one of the most penalized teams last year with 118 flags, and in the preseason the Bucs haven’t done much to improve on that. Tampa Bay could shoot itself in the foot and have another high draft pick in 2016.