Based on winning percentages from last year the Carolina Panthers have the toughest schedule in the NFL... but is it really? A schedule is so much more than wins and losses but how the games line up. How much travel do you do and when do you play critical divisional games. Let's break down how tough this schedule really is.
Yes the Panthers schedule is difficult. Yes this team is still trying to figure some things out. But new players in the secondary, some depth in the receiving corps, and another year of experience for Cam Newton means this team is better than they were a year ago.
Cam's rookie season was 6 wins. Last year they upped that to 7 and took 2nd place in the NFC South. Common sense this year says 8 wins. And with this schedule... I definitely see 8 wins. In fact their could be 9 or 10. One of my bold predictions for 2013 was a 10-6 campaign for the Panthers and I'll stand by that until the Panthers lose game #7. Here's some breakdown of the NFL's toughest schedule that actually isn't so tough.
- Divisional opponents. Every Sunday Matters in NFL Football. But 6 of your 16 games are against the division and winning the division means you're in the playoffs. In 2012 Carolina opened on the road in divisional play against Tampa Bay and they played everyone in the division within the first four weeks of the season. The one home game they got vs. New Orleans, they won. The other two were narrow loses on the road that led to a 1-6 start and quick end to the season. When the Panthers hit their stride they went 6-3 down the stretch winning 5 of their last 6 games of the year. This year the Panthers don't play a divisional game until Week 7 and 4 of their 6 divisional games are played over the final 5 weeks of the season. This year the Panthers will be playing the divisional opponents after working out the kinks and a more seasoned team should work through the early season woes quicker.
- Favors on the road. Winning in the NFL is hard. Winning on the road in the NFL is harder. And winning on a short week, or traveling cross country for an early Sunday afternoon game is damn near impossible. Weather conditions can play a factor as well. The Panthers got lots of favors on the road this year. They get Buffalo early on the road when it will be pleasant in upstate N.Y. and they get to go to Miami in November when it won't be 100 degrees outside in South Beach. Both west coast games are 4:05 kickoffs. Which makes sense. It's rare to see a west coast game kick at 1:00 EST and that makes it far easier for teams to travel east to west rather than west to east. Their first west coast game against Arizona comes after a bye and Arizona will be returning home after back to back road games AT New Orleans and AT Tampa Bay... boy no favors for the Cardinals this year in their travel plans. The Panthers have back-to-back road games only once and it's the two weeks following the bye @Arizona and @Minnesota.
- Favorable home games. To go with a favorable road schedule, the Panthers also get home games that will be tough situations for the opposition. It's the season opener so may not matter, but Seattle makes their first of three road trips to the east coast for 1:00 kick offs against Carolina on opening day. In last years 4-point win for the Seahawks kickoff was 4:05 in Charlotte. St. Louis has to travel in for a 1:00 game as well, one week after traveling to Houston and getting beat up by J.J Watt, Ed Reed and the Texans. And Carolina opens up a tough November stretch against Atlanta coming off 10 days of rest with a Thursday night game against Tampa the week before. Atlanta will be coming to Carolina 7 days after a return flight from Arizona that will get them home around midnight on Sunday night.
None of this stuff is the end all be all and doesn't guarantee a win or a loss. But it's amazing how a couple of tweaks to the schedule (afternoon game here, less travel there) can help a team survive the season.
I'm not going to sugar coat what is one of the toughest schedules in the NFL. And the November line up of games followed by the stretch run of divisional match ups could be what kills a successful September and October for these Panthers. But when you start to dig a little bit the Panthers do have some things playing in their favor. And the start is very manageable. Get off to a good start, build some confidence, and play games that mean something in November and December can make all the difference for a playoff contender.
Here is the Panthers schedule with my predictions and how they get to 10-6 and a wild card spot in the NFC Playoffs:
Sun 9/8 vs. Seattle 1:00 p.m. Win (1-0)
Sun 9/15 @ Buffalo 1:00 p.m. Win (2-0)
Sun 9/22 vs. NYG 1:00 p.m. Loss (2-1)
Sun 10/6 @ Arizona 4:05 p.m. Win (3-1)
Sun 10/13 @ Minnesota 1:00 p.m. Loss (3-2)
Sun 10/20 vs. St. Louis 1:00 p.m. Win (4-2)
Thu 10/24 @ Tampa Bay 8:25 p.m. Win (5-2)
Sun 11/3 vs. Atlanta 1:00 p.m. Win (6-2)
Sun 11/10 @ San Francisco 4:05 p.m. Loss (6-3)
Mon 11/18 vs. New England 8:30 p.m. Win (7-3)
Sun 11/24 @ Miami 1:00 p.m. Loss (7-4)
Sun 12/1 vs. Tampa Bay 1:00 p.m. Win (8-4)
Sun 12/8 @ New Orleans 1:00 p.m. Loss (8-5)
Sun 12/15 vs. New York Jets 1:00 p.m. Win (9-5)
Sun 12/22 vs. New Orleans 1:00 p.m. Win (10-5)
Sun 12/29 @ Atlanta 1:00 p.m. Loss (10-6)