Top 5 Must-Win Games for Carolina Panthers (Non-Divisional)
Carolina will open its season with high expectations. Ryan Kalil has declared his team will reach and win the Super Bowl this year, but others feel the Panthers will, at best, make a playoff appearance before being unceremoniously dispatched and ending their season.
According to ESPN's Pat Yasinskas, the Panthers have the toughest schedule in their division and the 10th hardest in their league (.508).
The key to Carolina's success will not only be the health and performance of their key players, but defying history and defeating exceptional opponents that could be vying for a playoff spot. Five non-division games have been selected as the proverbial stepping stones the Panthers must overcome if they are to make good on Kalil's declaration and make it to the Super Bowl.
It should be noted that Carolina has a losing record against four of these five teams all time and a mediocre 3-3 record against the fifth one.
Week 3: New York Giants
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The Panthers start their schedule against non-division foes with the defending champion Giants at home during prime time. While the Panthers sport a 3-3 record against New York, they haven't fared too well in regular season prime time games.
The last time these two teams locked horns in the regular season was 2010 when Matt Moore was under center. The Panthers lost that game 31-18.
Times have changed since then and so has the atmosphere. This will be an important game for the Panthers because they will be coming off a game with the rival Saints and Cam Newton will have to deal with an exceptional pass rush from the Giants defense. Another reason this game will be important: a victory on the national stage may have people thinking they are for real.
Week 7: Dallas Cowboys
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Carolina's first game after the bye has them at home playing the Cowboys. Anyone who has ever watched the Panthers and Cowboys play during the regular season knows this matchup is very one-sided.
Dallas owns an impressive 8-1 record against Carolina during the regular season and will be looking to build upon that success in Week 7.
If the Panthers are going to move forward and be competitive, this will be a must-win for them. Since the game is at home, the Panthers have the advantage and could encourage their fans to sell out the stadium and reduce the number of Cowboys fans in attendance. This could serve as a pivotal midseason game for both teams.
Week 8: Chicago Bears
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There is no such thing as an easy game at Soldier Field. With the game being played at the end of October, its a fair assumption the weather conditions will not be too favorable either. However, the Panthers get lucky because the weather usually gets bad here in late November or December.
Carolina will be looking to exact revenge for last year's 34-29 defeat. Such payback would be sweet because it will allow the Panthers to defeat the Bears in front of their home crowd. The Panthers haven't played bad against the Bears but they haven't played well either, sporting a record of 2-4 against them.
The Bears look to be the third best team in the NFC North behind Green Bay and Detroit, so a victory here is crucial. Both teams have talented offenses and if the defenses do not show up for either side, this game could be a shootout.
Week 10: Denver Broncos
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The Broncos are the only AFC team on this list because of the four AFC West teams the Panthers play this year, Denver is the only team whom they have a losing record against (1-2).
This is a home game for Carolina and it will pit them in a matchup with a future Hall of Famer, Peyton Manning. A couple of things come into play here.
First, Carolina has usually had success against Manning, having defeated him three times in four chances during his tenure at Indianapolis. The other thing that will come into play will be the effectiveness of Denver's passing game.
If Manning is healthy and returns to form, this game could be a close affair. If he finds himself off his game or on the injury report, Carolina could have a huge advantage with Denver having to make do with their backup Caleb Hanie and hope the Panthers run and pass defense is ineffective.
This game will feature the return of John Fox, and many Carolina fans would love to give him a parting gift in the form of a Panthers win.
Week 12: Philadelphia Eagles
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This could very well be the Game of the Year for both teams. Newton vs. Vick on Monday Night Football. The Panthers young quarterback has drawn a lot of comparisons to the Eagles' signal-caller and this game could be a balanced affair of defense and offense. Philadelphia will have a slight advantage defensively given the season has yet to start.
Much like their history with Dallas, Carolina's regular season success against the Eagles is limited. Their record in six contests is 1-5. This game could have playoff implications and it could be a playoff preview. Both teams will enter this season with a chip on their shoulder looking to make huge strides.
A Panthers victory here should validate their status as a contender—assuming they are still alive in the playoff race this late in the season.
Conclusion: Interesting Fact
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Carolina may not have the best of success against New York, Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia—sporting a paltry 7-20 record in regular season games with them. However, the Panthers are an impressive 5-0 collectively against these teams in the playoffs. They have defeated the Cowboys twice and shut out the Giants in 2006 during the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
That being said, if the Panthers are to lose to any of these teams and meet them in the playoffs, you cannot automatically dismiss them. Carolina has shown the ability to play at a higher tempo in these games and hopefully, they will bring that same level and intensity to every game they play in 2012.