The 2013 NFL schedule is finally here and along with it the games that will shape the Carolina Panthers' season later this year. While there is great joy in knowing when the games will be played, there should be a bit of understandable concern when the new season begins.
As luck would have it, the Panthers draw the hardest schedule, once again facing opponents who had a combined winning percentage of .543 during the 2012 campaign. To add to that, Carolina will face five teams who won 10 games or more last season, all of which made the playoffs as well.
Needless to say, the Panthers have their work cut out for them if they are to make a run at a playoff berth. A postseason appearance may be needed in order for head coach Ron Rivera to keep his job, and his task will not be an easy one.
Carolina will get its fair share of the national spotlight as it plays two prime-time games this season. First, the Panthers will travel to Tampa Bay a for Thursday night game and will then host the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football.
Without further adieu, here are the games in a power ranking format based on easiest to hardest for the Carolina Panthers in 2013.
The easiest game on the Carolina Panthers' schedule will come during Week 15, when they host the New York Jets. While it is still too early to determine just how good either team will be this late in the season, it stands to reason that the Jets will be going through another chapter of organizational turmoil.
Carolina should have better talent on both sides of the ball, which will make this game not very close. Mark Sanchez will most likely be the starting quarterback, but given how bad the team has played and the media circus it has presented the past couple of seasons, it will be hard to take this it seriously.
However, that doesn't mean the Panthers should take the Jets lightly. If that happens, any team can be dangerous, even one who created the infamous "Butt-Fumble."
It was very easy to rank this game as the easiest overall, but despite the revolving door at quarterback in Arizona, one shouldn't dismiss the talents of Larry Fitzgerald and the success of the Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians.
Arians was last year's Coach of the Year, guiding a young Indianapolis team from league's worst to playoff contender. Making it even more impressive was the fact he used a rookie quarterback the entire season.
However, this will be a different team learning a different system, and it may still be trying to grasp it when the matchup with Carolina arrives during Week 5. That could play to the Panthers' advantage, as they will no doubt be a tough out for the Red Birds.
Also, it should be noted that Cam Newton torched the Arizona defense for over 400 yards the last time the Panthers played in the desert. Newton would like to continue his success at University of Phoenix stadium and come away with a win.
It was a bit difficult to rank this game a little higher, because if Carolina doesn't improve its rush defense, Adrian Peterson will have his way with the Panthers. However, no one person is the reason for a team's success or failures.
While the Vikings do possess a stout running game, the passing attack is a different story. Some people aren't sold on Christian Ponder, and the Vikings saw the departure of Percy Harvin in the offseason. That leaves the Vikes' leading receiver being Kyle Rudolph who caught 53 passes for 493 yards. He did have nine touchdowns.
Defensively, they are not much better, as they are middle-of-the-pack in pass defense and near the bottom in stopping the run. Both areas could be their undoing against a Carolina attack, which can be dangerous when everyone is playing at a high level.
Even though the Vikings get home-field advantage, the Panthers should be able to take care of them in a game that could come down to stopping the Minnesota rushing game.
If you are seeing a trend here, you are right. The Panthers will benefit from having a relatively easy schedule during the first half of the season. The St. Louis Rams should be another favorable game and the third straight winnable contest in October.
The Rams improved by five games in 2012 and could be a dark-horse contender this season. Jeff Fisher has a knack for success in the league, as he was the head coach at Tennessee for a number of years before being replaced.
Missing from the St. Louis offense is Steven Jackson, who signed with Atlanta during the offseason. Essentially, Sam Bradford will need to step up if he is to give his team a fighting chance in the NFC West.
After being a No. 1 overall pick by the Rams in 2010, Bradford hasn't lived up to the expectations many had of him when he came out of Oklahoma. His 21 touchdowns from last year were the most in a season, but he will need to do better if his team is to have a chance.
The Panthers' defense should make life difficult for him from the edges. And depending on how well they improve their defense, the middle could be as equally difficult to contain.
Carolina needs to have a good game here. It opens the following week in Tampa Bay, which will be the start of a much more difficult schedule.
The Miami Dolphins are doing their best to compete in their division. The need to stay competitive netted them free-agent receiver Mike Wallace and gave the Dolphins a legitimate threat through the air. However, Ryan Tannehill has a lot to prove, since Miami's passing game was below-average at best.
The passing game was ranked 26th last season, and Tannehill only threw 12 touchdowns despite gaining 3,294 yards through the air. Adding to the pressure is the fact that former first-round selection Jake Long left Miami for St. Louis.
It would be easy to rank this game a little lower in terms of difficulty, but the Panthers have yet to defeat the Dolphins during the regular season. While they should be the favorites in this game, it is never wise to underestimate the Dolphins at home.
This contest should prove to be more favorable a week after playing New England despite the fact that the team will be on short rest. Aside from games against the Bucs and the Jets that Carolina will play in December, this could be one of the last easier games on its tough schedule.
It's almost unfair that the Panthers have to take on division rival New Orleans twice in a three-week period. Last year, Carolina swept the series, but the Saints were a team of distractions in 2012 and it showed.
One thing to look for in this game is the continued harassment off the edges from Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and perhaps from the linebacking corps. However, Drew Brees and company are not ones to roll over easily, and this game figures to be a shootout.
If the Panthers get behind early, Cam Newton will be counted on to make a comeback, which is an area he is still unproven in.
Fortunately, Carolina won't see the Saints until December, and it should have all the kinks worked out and be on the same page with one another. If not, it could be a very long day in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
This is perhaps the biggest rivalry the Carolina Panthers have inside their division, and they will have their first meeting in prime time on Thursday night to close out October. Carolina should be looking at a measure of revenge for being swept by the Bucs last year, as it dropped games in which many felt the Panthers should have won.
Carolina and Tampa have made it almost a tradition of sorts to play each other hard and in the process deliver some close games. Both of these teams are similar in makeup, with each sporting a big, mobile quarterback and each having that one standout receiver.
What will determine the winner in this game is who wants it more and who makes the fewest mistakes. Traditionally, the Panthers are not the best team when it comes to night games, but if they are to emerge as winners in 2013, they will need to turn around their fortune and beat teams while in the national spotlight.
Granted, Buffalo won only six games last year. Yes, it finished last in its division. However, if history has taught us anything, it's not to overlook teams based solely on their records. Last year's upset at Kansas City is a great example of that.
This ranking is based on the fast start the Bills got off to last year, and it wouldn't be surprising if they were to repeat it in 2013. Gone is Ryan Fitzpatrick, having been released after the season ended. However, that leaves Kevin Kolb and Tavarius Jackson fighting for the starter position—assuming the Bills don't draft Geno Smith.
Another aspect taken into account here is the fact that this will be the Panthers' first road game, and there may be some away-team jitters. But following their opener against Seattle, the Bills could be the kind of team who the Panthers need to bounce back against if they start out 0-1.
Never count out Buffalo. This game should be a measuring stick of how the season plays out, as it is both a road game and a matchup that the Panthers should win.
Same verse, same as the first. The only difference is the locale. The series finale between these two should be a good one. And entering the final month of the regular season, this game could find both teams jockeying for a position in the playoff picture.
The second matchup is always the toughest, as both teams have already seen each other and are familiar with one another's style of game play. With this matchup taking place in Week 13, it is easy for division rivals to anticipate the next move, and that could be the case in this game.
What makes this matchup rank a little higher in terms of difficulty is the simple fact that rivalry bragging rights will be on the line, a possible playoff berth could be in play and each team could find itself hitting a little harder.
For Carolina, it needs to win this game regardless of the outcome from the previous matchup, as it will set the stage for the final month.
This game is a classic good news, bad news scenario for the Carolina Panthers. The good news being that they only have to play one of the Manning brothers this year. The bad news is that it's the one who torched them on Thursday Night Football a season ago.
The Giants figure to be in the mix for the playoffs during the 2013 season, and they have had an abundance of luck against the Panthers. They showed how good they were by embarrassing Carolina at home in front of a national audience.
The G-Men could be looking to make a statement early, and despite missing the playoffs last year, they did compile a 9-7 record. This game will be important for Carolina as well, since they have a bye week following the game.
One key to defeating the Giants will be to take out the passing game. A revamped secondary and effective pass rush will do just that and should aid the Panthers in achieving a victory.
One could make an argument here that the toughest game against the Saints will take place in New Orleans and not in Charlotte. While this is true, the basis of this ranking is assuming the Panthers win the first matchup, leaving the Saints with a strong, bitter taste in their mouths.
If Carolina does indeed win the first meeting, the Saints are going to do everything and anything to win the finale. Much like the series with Tampa and even Atlanta (which will be discussed later), playoff implications could be in the mix, and that would mean some hard-hitting football.
As every Carolina fan knows, things tend to get chippy between these two clubs, and Steve Smith and Roman Harper have no love lost for each other. Plus, if there was any reason to wonder why the league was so hell-bent on dishing out punishment over the bounty hunting scandal, look out for extracurricular activity after plays and watch the severity of hits.
These two teams will be bringing it.
Carolina will begin the I-85 rivalry the first Sunday in November against the Atlanta Falcons. Both games have the dubious honor of being among the top five toughest games the Panthers will play this season. Considering the Falcons are the defending NFC South champions and made it all the way to the NFC Championship game last season, the label is well deserved.
The Falcons have always been a tough out for the Panthers, and they look to be even better in 2013. They signed Steven Jackson in free agency and were able to talk future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez into playing another season. If there is any team in the NFC with a loaded offense, it's Atlanta.
Last season Carolina split the series even, though they probably should have swept it. A major miscue on the Panthers' final possession and a poor defensive showing allowed Matt Ryan to put his team in field-goal range and ultimately claim victory.
In order to be the best, the Panthers will need to beat the best, and right now that is the Falcons. Carolina will need to be firing on all cylinders when it rounds out the first half of its season against Atlanta. If the Panthers bring their A-game and have the benefit of home-field advantage, they could pull out a close victory.
The Carolina Panthers will kick off their 2013 season against a red-hot Seattle team. These teams encountered each other last year with the Seahawks emerging with a close 16-12 win. Why this game isn't a prime time or a late Sunday game is anyone's guess, as this contest will feature two of the league's most exciting quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Russell Wilson.
Unlike the Panthers, the Seahawks look to be contenders in the NFC this upcoming season. Both teams will be looking to get off to a fast start, but Carolina has struggled in season openers in recent years. In fact, it hasn't won in Week 1 since defeating San Diego in 2008—the last time Carolina made the playoffs.
This game has the makings of being a shootout, but it can also be a low scoring affair, much like last year's meeting. Each team will be doing its best to keep the other in check, but Seattle has a lot of punch, especially after acquiring wide receiver Percy Harvin.
The outcome of this game could tell the tale of what kind of season to expect this year. But looking ahead, the Panthers would be hard-pressed to find too many more games that will carry this degree of difficulty, save for the three games ahead of this one.
Assuming that both the Panthers and the Falcons find themselves in playoff contention entering the final week of the season, this game could be one of the toughest and carry a postseason-like atmosphere. Just like the second meetings with the other division foes, this game may carry a lot of different implications as playoff berths and perhaps the division title could be on the line.
What makes this game even tougher is the fact it will be played in Atlanta. The Panthers have had little success in the Georgia Dome in recent years, last achieving victory there in 2007. Since the beginning of 2010, Carolina has only won three times—all at home.
Games don't get any harder than this one as far as divisional rivalries are concerned. And in a way, it's a fitting end to a season that started out tough and became more grueling as the it progressed. If anything, this will be the ultimate gut-check game for the Panthers.
This game should be exciting to watch, as fans will be treated to Brady vs. Newton on Monday Night Football. However, the New England Patriots thrive on the big stage, while the Carolina Panthers have a tendency to get blown out by the stronger teams in prime time. Remember the games against the Steelers and Giants the past couple of seasons?
With any luck, the Panthers will play the Patriots tough and keep the game close. However, if the team is playing like it was at the beginning of last season, it could be a long night for Carolina. When it comes to squaring off against the elite quarterbacks in the league, the Panthers seldom have an answer. Tom Brady is about as elite as they come.
If the Carolina defense is not ready to defend the pass or establish an effective pass rush, Brady will have all the time in the world to find his targets.
While the Panthers and Patriots have met before since their Super Bowl encounter, this would be the first meaningful game played between the two that will have the collective football world watching.
Perhaps the most difficult game of the year will be on the west coast when the Panthers take on the 49ers in November. At one point these two teams were rivals, but since the league realigned, the rivalry has subsided. The Panthers will enter this game having won three straight from the Niners, but their last win in the Bay Area was in 2004.
Historically speaking, however, these two have played well against each other.
While San Francisco is enjoying success it hasn't seen since the 1990s, it should be noted that during this era which saw the Niners led by Steve Young and Jerry Rice, the teams split the series 7-7. But these are two very different teams.
Much like the Seattle game, it's amazing that this one wasn't slated as a night game, as it will feature another budding quarterback in Colin Kaepernick. This one has all the makings of being a hard-fought, smashmouth football game.
Considering that both teams boast some impressive linebacker units and both preach defense, this one could be a low-scoring affair.
When you're going up against the reigning NFC champion who is looking to make another run in 2013 along with the fact that the game will be played on the road, the level of difficulty doesn't get any harder than this.
Carolina definitely has a lot on its plate this upcoming season, but nobody ever said it was going to be easy. If the Panthers are to test their mettle, this slate of games will serve as an excellent measuring stick.