Carolina will look to improve on a 2011 third-place finish in the NFC South—a tough division that features an embattled New Orleans team and an always-competitive Falcons squad with a fierce offense.
This year will be the year for the Panthers to capitalize on what could prove to be a weak year for the Saints. Those division wins will be increasingly important in 2012, when Carolina faces a very challenging non-conference schedule.
Overall, the Panthers have the seventh-toughest schedule in 2012, according to The Red Zone.
Week 1 9/9: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4:15 ET, Fox
Week 2 9/16: Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints, 1 ET, Fox
Week 3 9/20 (Thursday): Carolina Panthers vs. New York Giants, 8:20 ET, NFL Network
Week 4 9/30: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons, 1 ET, Fox
Week 5 10/7: Carolina Panthers vs. Seattle Seahawks, 4:05 ET, Fox
Week 6: Bye
Week 7 10/21: Carolina Panthers vs. Dallas Cowboys, 1 ET, Fox
Week 8 10/28: Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears, 1 ET, Fox
Week 9 11/4: Carolina Panthers at Washington Redskins, 1 ET, Fox
Week 10 11/11: Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos, 1 ET, CBS
Week 11 11/18: Carolina Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 ET, Fox
Week 12 11/26 (Monday): Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles, 8:30 ET, ESPN
Week 13 12/2: Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs, 1 ET, Fox
Week 14 12/9: Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons, 1 ET, Fox
Week 15 12/16: Carolina Panthers at San Diego Chargers, 4:05 ET, Fox
Week 16 12/23: Carolina Panthers vs. Oakland Raiders, 1 ET, CBS
Week 17 12/30: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints, 1 ET, Fox
Avoiding sweeps to division foes will be especially crucial if the Panthers want to be playoff contenders by season's end. Last year, Carolina lost to New Orleans twice, and to Atlanta twice. That simply can't happen again.
In 2011, the Panthers were able to beat Tampa Bay twice, which finished in last place in the NFC South. This year, Ron Rivera and Co. must build on that and refuse to make it easy for the Falcons and the Saints.
Among its home matchups, Carolina will take on the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, a new-look Broncos team commandeered by Peyton Manning, and a steadily improving Raiders team. Taking down the Giants so early in the season in Week 3 would give them a huge statement win.
The Panthers have a rough early schedule, facing the Falcons on the road after taking on the Saints and the Giants back to back—but this is a huge opportunity for them to assert themselves. A second matchup on the road at New Orleans to close out the season is a huge game, particularly if the Panthers find themselves in the midst of the division title race.
Among the Panthers' road matchups are a Chicago Bears team that beat them in Week 4 last year and will finally have a healthy Jay Cutler at the helm, as well as the Eagles, who finished last season with four straight wins.
Which game on the schedule poses the biggest challenge?
Most Pivotal Matchup
Winning at least one of the two contests versus New Orleans is essential for the Panthers' 2012 season, and they might as well gun for the first one at home to establish some early momentum. The Saints may have been a Super Bowl contender in 2011, but now, they'll be without head coach Sean Payton for the season and the team's identity will be in shambles. Carolina must take advantage and make a big statement by knocking them off in Week 2.
If the Panthers can follow that up in Week 3 with a win over the Super Bowl champion Giants, they'll be in great shape and could be one of the early surprises in the NFC. Those two wins would give the Panthers huge momentum heading into a Week 4 showdown at Atlanta.
Outside of their division, the Panthers have to emerge victorious in the should-win games—against the Seahawks, Buccaneers, Chiefs and Redskins. The NFC South is so tough, every game they should win becomes crucial.