The Panthers’ potential path to another Super Bowl will include a lot of late nights.
Reigning MVP Cam Newton and the defending NFC-champion Panthers will play a franchise-record five prime-time games in 2016, beginning with a Super Bowl 50 rematch against the Broncos on Sept. 8 that kicks off the NFL season on Thursday Night Football in Denver.
The Carolina-Denver matchup will mark the seventh time the previous season’s Super Bowl entrants played the following season. And only once before have they met in Week 1 – in 1970 when Minnesota and Kansas City squared off.
The Panthers’ other prime-time dates include divisional games at home against Tampa Bay (Mon., Oct. 10) and New Orleans (Thurs., Nov. 17) and road games at Seattle (Sun., Dec. 4) and Washington (Mon., Dec. 19).
“It’s exciting for our players to compete on a national stage,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We have earned the right to be in the spotlight and we have to take advantage of it. Every season presents challenges and we are excited to get back to work.”
Expect Rivera to use the Broncos game as a carrot to help the Panthers get through the dog days of training camp in Spartanburg.
The Panthers fell to Denver 24-10 in Super Bowl 50 after self-destructing with several dropped passes and four turnovers, including two strip-sacks by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller against Newton.
Carolina will face a Broncos team that will have lost at least eight of 22 starters, a list led by quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning retired several weeks after winning his second Super Bowl ring.
Denver parted ways with another quarterback when Brock Osweiler signed with Houston, leaving Mark Sanchez or a draft pick (Paxton Lynch?) as the presumptive Week 1 starter against the Panthers.
Osweiler and the Texans were thought to be a possible choice to open the season in Denver. Instead, the NFL opted to stage a rare Super Bowl rematch.
Four other thoughts on the Panthers’ schedule, which was released Thursday night:
Rivera will try to fight off jet lag: The Panthers will make four cross-country trips, including the potential for three in a five-week span beginning Nov. 6 against the Rams during their inaugural season in Los Angeles.
But the schedule-makers, as they generally do for teams with lots of West Coast travel, gave the Panthers an option to mitigate the long flights. Carolina likely will stay out west between their games at Oakland (Nov. 27) and Seattle (Dec. 4), according to a team source.
That will help the Panthers adjust to the three-hour time distance, although the logistics of staying and practicing on the road for a week present a different set of issues.
Say hello to Seattle ... again: The Panthers and Seahawks will renew their long-distance rivalry in Week 13 at CenturyLink Field. It will be the seventh time (including the playoffs) the teams have met since 2012 when former Wisconsin and N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson entered the league.
Wilson and the Seahawks got the best of Carolina by winning the first four matchups. But the tide turned last season when Newton led the Panthers to a come-from-behind, regular season victory he capped with a game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Olsen.
The Panthers went on to beat Seattle in the playoffs when linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted Wilson early in the divisional-round game and returned it for a touchdown.
The Seahawks lost running back Marshawn Lynch to retirement and linebacker Bruce Irvin to free agency. But these are usually close, defensive-driven games when these teams get together.
Bye week precedes tough stretch: After an early bye last season, the Panthers’ bye this season falls in Week 7 before a challenging stretch featuring home games against 2015 playoff teams Arizona and Kansas City sandwiched around the trip to L.A.
The Cardinals-Panthers matchup is a rematch of the Panthers’ decisive 49-15 victory in last season’s NFC championship game. Quarterback Carson Palmer will lead a Cardinals team that traded for former New England defensive end Chandler Jones and added ex-Broncos guard Evan Mathis and former Chiefs safety Tyvon Branch in free agency.
The Chiefs won their final 10 regular-season games in 2015 behind a defense that finished seventh in the NFL (one spot behind the Panthers) in yards allowed.
The Rams will be starting a rookie quarterback after acquiring the No. 1 pick from Tennessee.
But the Panthers will have to adjust to playing in the cavernous L.A. Coliseum. Southern Cal’s home stadium has a capacity of 93,607.
Going for four straight division titles: The Panthers don’t play an NFC South opponent until Week 4, when they travel to Atlanta for the first of three consecutive division games.
Carolina, which has won the South three years in a row, will play outside the division for more than a month starting in late-November before wrapping up the regular season against Atlanta (Dec. 24) and at Tampa Bay (Jan. 1).
Turnovers and shoddy play by Matt Ryan derailed the Falcons after a 6-1 start last season. Meanwhile, the Bucs are in reboot mode again after firing Lovie Smith and promoting Dirk Koetter, whose strong relationship with second-year QB Jameis Winston got him the job.