It's that point in the offseason again: when all the big names have been taken off the free agent market and the draft isn't quite here yet. To keep fans from getting too bored, the NFL gives them a new bone to chew by releasing the schedule for the upcoming season. That's what happened last Tuesday night, when the schedule for the 2014 NFL season was announced on ESPN. Here's what the Panthers got:
-Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Tampa Bay, 4:25 p.m.
-Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, Detroit, 1 p.m.
-Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m.
-Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
-Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Chicago, 1 p.m.
-Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
-Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Green Bay, 1 p.m.
-Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Seattle, 1 p.m.
-Week 9: Thursday, Oct. 30, New Orleans, 8:25 p.m.
-Week 10: Monday, Nov. 10, at Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m.
-Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
-Week 12: BYE
-Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
-Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
-Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
-Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
-Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
This year's schedule ranks 22nd toughest in the NFL, quite a step down from last year when the Panthers had the league's most difficult. To me, it looks like the league office saw fit to reward Carolina for its resilience, as not many teams can take a campaign like the Panthers had and go 12-4, especially coming off a 7-9 season the previous year. Another thing that jumped out at me is the fact that the Panthers will once again make the primetime rounds, as they play on Thursday night (Saints, Week 9), Monday night (@ Eagles, Week 10), and Sunday night (Steelers, Week 3). The Panthers did quite well in primetime last season, besting the Buccaneers and Patriots before an unfortunate loss to the Saints. This time, they'll host two of the games as opposed to one.
The part that I'm most concerned about is Weeks 4-9. During this 33-day stretch, the Panthers play three solid opponents (Seattle, Chicago, @Cincinnati) and travel to Baltimore and Green Bay before coming back home to face New Orleans. The outcome of the season will more than likely depend on how the Panthers fare during these six games. Steve Smith has promised his former team blood and guts, and I could easily picture Aaron Rodgers (assuming he's healthy, that is) shredding the secondary. Not to mention Carolina will have to face the defending Super Bowl champions, but will have the luxury of playing the Seahawks at home for the second straight season. If the Panthers can at least break even here at 3-3, they should be fine, as the rest of the season is loaded with highly winnable games. Plus, the first three games of the season (@Tampa Bay, Detroit, Pittsburgh) won't be nearly as trying as the next three (and the three after that), so the team will have a chance to break in their new players against less formidable opponents. All in all, if the Cardiac Cats play their cards correctly, they can easily crack ten wins, a playoff spot, and maybe even go back-to-back as NFC South champions.