After much anticipation, the Carolina Panthers released their 2014 schedule Wednesday night.
Before its release, we knew it would be no cakewalk. Being paired with the NFC North and AFC North means tough, albeit somewhat unpredictable football. It was also clear the Panthers NFC South title last season means games against the Green Bay Packers and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in 2014.
So, how tough is it?
The Panthers will play three games in primetime this season.
Week 3: Sunday Night Football vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (8:30 p.m.)
Week 9: Thursday Night Football vs. New Orleans Saints (8:25 p.m.)
Week 10: Monday Night Football at Philadelphia Eagles (8:30 p.m.)
The good news with the primetime games? More exposure. With three games, the Panthers will be playing under the lights more in 2014 than they have since 2009, when they also played three in the regular season. (For what it’s worth, they went 8-8 and finished third in the NFC South that year.) While playing on Thursday is always a little awkward, the Panthers will benefit from a game on Monday night the following week, essentially giving them a second BYE week. Speaking of byes, it’s week 12 this year, a massive improvement from having it in week 4 in 2013.
In all, including divisional games, the Panthers will only play playoff teams 6 times this season and don’t play their first against a 2013 postseason participant until Week 6 in Cincinnati. That sounds outstanding on paper and could be pretty good in reality but let’s not get too excited about an “easy’ schedule. Outside of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers’ first few opponents were a combined 31-33 last season. That’s not daunting but games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in weeks 3 and 4 respectively will be tricky with both teams expecting bounce back seasons in 2014.
Week 6 in Cincinnati also marks the start of a potentially disastrous stretch. Here’s how Weeks 6 through 11 look before the bye week.
Week 6: at Cincinnati Bengals (1:00 p.m.)
Week 7: at Green Bay Packers (1:00 p.m.)
Week 8: vs. Seattle Seahawks (1:00 p.m.)
Week 9: vs. New Orleans Saints (8:25 p.m.)
Week 10: at Philadelphia Eagles (8:30 p.m.)
Week 11: vs. Atlanta Falcons (1:00 p.m.)
That’s five games in a row against teams that went to the playoffs last season before a Week 11 matchup with a Falcons team that many fully expect to compete for postseason play in 2014. Even if the Panthers start the season, let’s say, 3-2, there is a very good chance they will enter the Week 12 BYE with a record below .500.
Games after the BYE look a little easier. Despite contests in New Orleans and Atlanta, the Panthers also have games at the Minnesota Vikings, as well as home to the Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. If they go 3-2 or 4-1 to close out the year, they could be right back in the hunt depending on how badly weeks 6-11 beat them up.
Bottom Line: There are a lot of wild cards on the schedule. How good will the Ravens be? Will the Falcons have a big rebound year or play like last season? One thing though looks pretty clear. The Panthers’ season and playoff hopes rely on the series of games before the bye. If they can split those six games, 10 or 11 wins are realistic. But with some of the hits to the receiving corps and offensive line, the dreams of a 12-4 season might belong in 2013.