Five things to know about Panthers schedule:
Nothing soft in the middle
After three winnable games to open the season, the Panthers’ schedule gets considerably tougher in October. The Week 6 trip to Cincinnati will begin a five-game stretch against playoff teams from 2013. The gauntlet includes two games in five days against Seattle and New Orleans. At least the schedule-makers tried to be fair: The Saints also play the Sunday before (home vs. Green Bay) the short-week trip to Carolina for the Thursday night game.
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The Panthers got a little love from the networks after winning the NFC South and making the playoffs in ’13. They’ll play three prime-time games: Sept. 21 vs. Pittsburgh (Sunday night, NBC), Oct. 30 vs. New Orleans (Thursday night, NFL Network) and Nov. 10 at Philadelphia (Monday night, ESPN).
Despite its “Rust Belt” schedule against the AFC and NFC North divisions, the Panthers might miss the wintry weather. The one possible exception: A Nov. 30 game at Minnesota, which will be played at the University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium while construction continues on the Vikings’ new domed facility.
Seattle comes to Charlotte, Part III
Funny how the schedule shakes out sometimes. The reigning Super Bowl champions will return to Bank of America Stadium for the third time in as many years on Oct. 26. Former N.C. State standout Russell Wilson has never lost to the Panthers after consecutive close games. The game pits the league’s two top defenses from last season.
Steve Smith Bowl
NFL players say all the time all games are the same, but that likely won’t apply to Steve Smith for this matchup. The Panthers’ all-time leading receiver will face Carolina for the first time in his career when the Panthers travel to Baltimore in Week 4. The Panthers cut him in March. Smith told fans to bring goggles because there will be “blood and guts everywhere.” Enjoy.
No Lovie lost
Tampa Bay will look radically different than last season, and it won’t just be the new jerseys. Lovie Smith will take over a Bucs organization widely viewed as dysfunctional last season. He looks to bring stability to One Buc Place.
Smith and Panthers coach Ron Rivera worked together in Chicago when Rivera was Smith’s defensive coordinator. After Rivera’s contract expired, Smith did not retain him. Both men say there’s no animosity, but their first meeting as division rivals in Week 1 should be a good chess match.