Below is a first look at the Carolina Panthers' 2009 regular-season schedule.
First off, one good thing is that it looks like the Panthers will only have to play one West Coast game. Granted, East Coast teams do better on the West Coast than West Coast teams on the East Coast, but it still isn't very fun to have to wait until at least 4:15 to see your team play.
Don't be surprised if the Panthers play a couple prime-time games—Sunday Night Football once or twice and maybe Monday Night Football once or twice. Their status as an NFC contender might be used for marketing reasons because the NFC now has so many contenders that almost any of the Panthers' games against NFC East opponents or either contest against the Falcons could make for a great prime-time game.
The Panthers' 2009 record should be somewhere between 6-10 and 13-3.
Carolina will probably split the season series with Atlanta. Both teams take their home games, though Carolina wins its home game by a wider margin.
The Saints won't be that good next year. New Orleans looks to be another one-dimensional offensive team that can't play defense. The Panthers should sweep the Saints.
Unless Raheem Morris works coaching magic worthy of Coach of the Year considerations, the Bucs likely won't be very competitive next year.
With an incapable offense and the mastermind behind Tampa's formerly stingy defense gone, the Bucs will struggle to win in 2009. The Panthers should sweep them, too.
The question is: When will the Panthers get the Eagles? If it's in December—and I have a bad feeling that it is—then the Eagles should win. We all know how well they play in December.
The Redskins are the polar opposite of the Eagles under second-year head coach Jim Zorn. hey play well early in the year, and then tail off down the stretch. This game will depend on whether the Panthers have a decent pass rush next year.
If they don't the Redskins will win. Right now it looks like the Panthers will have a poor pass rush in 2009.
The Vikings always seem to have the Panthers' number with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. The last time the Panthers beat the Vikings (in 2005, by a score of 38-13), the Vikings didn't have either rusher. Peterson was still in college, and Taylor was in his last year with the Ravens.
Since then the Vikings have found a way to beat Carolina in both meetings. Something about the Vikings just sets Panthers fans on edge.
The Buffalo Bills have a long way to go before they stop being an automatic win for any opponent over .500. As long as the Panthers don't go easy on the Bills, this should be an easy win.
The Miami Dolphins can't do anything unless their single-wing formation allows them to fool the defense. If their offense puts up 30 points, then their defense does just enough to win. But with defensive guru John Fox at the helm, you can bet he'll have an effective game plan for that gimmicky single-wing.
The Panthers just need to hope they get the Cowboys late in the season. If they do, it should be a relatively easy win that can be used to bolster their playoff position. Even if they don't, those off-the-field issues are always looming in the shadows for the Cowboys.
The Panthers lost to the Giants by the hair on their chinny chin chins in 2008. Unfortunately for them, next year's game will be at the Meadowlands. Who says the infamous Meadowlands wind won't ruin the Panthers' certain victory again?
On the other hand, something tells me that John Fox will have a vastly better run defense next year. If that's the case, half of the Giants' winning formula will be gone just like that.
I've learned to trust my gut, so I'm going with the Panthers in this one, due to a better run defense and improved Double Trouble running attack.
If they continue to play the way they have in the playoffs this year in 2009, the Cardinals will deal the Panthers their only projected blowout of the season. But I'm not sure that they will.
Still, with clueless defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac back next year and likely letting Larry Fitzgerald romp all over the field next year (in addition to Anquan Boldin, provided he's healthy), and battling a suddenly hostile University of Phoenix Stadium crowd, the Cardinals should still win.
The Panthers haven't lost to the New England Patriots since Super Bowl XXXVIII. As good as the Patriots are, the Panthers have found a way to beat them in recent meetings.
But both games since the 2003 Super Bowl were played in Charlotte. This one's in Foxborough. I don't like the idea of having to play at Gillette Stadium.
The New York Jets may be in a coaching transition when the Panthers play them. If they aren't look for the Jets' suffocating run defense to slow down Carolina's Double Trouble. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme may have trouble throwing the ball in the New York cold.
But as discouraging as all that is for Panthers fans, if Brett Favre doesn't return to the Jets, the Panthers should win. New York doesn't have any half-decent backup quarterbacks, and the running game won't be able to do it alone if my hunch about a resurgent Panthers run "D" is right.
A 10-6 record in next year's NFC could be enough to secure the fifth or sixth seed. But it won't be enough to win the division over the Falcons.
With their brutal schedule for 2009 and numerous offseason personnel and coaching changes, don't expect the Panthers to be as good next year as they were this year.
But do expect the Panthers to break their trend of having a losing season the year after a winning season by finishing two games above .500.
Keep in mind that this is only a very early look at next year's games. Much will change between now and the start of the 2009 regular season, and the projected outcome of any of these games could change as a result of any unexpected transactions.