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The 5 Games That Will Determine Carolina Panthers Fate in 2013

Stephen FenechCorrespondent IJune 13, 2013

The 5 Games That Will Determine Carolina Panthers Fate in 2013

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    The Carolina Panthers have not qualified for the playoffs since 2008, but that could change this season. 

    Since their last postseason appearance, the Panthers drafted Cam Newton, who won the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year Award and Luke Kuechly, who led the league in tackles on the way to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. 

    Young building blocks like Newton and Kuechly have the Panthers set up for a consistent level of success, but it's up to the front office to supply the right players around them. 

    Carolina is solid in some areas, (quarterback, along the defensive line and linebacker come to mind) but appear to be shaky in other  (in the secondary and at wide receiver). So while a playoff run this season is possible, the Panthers will need development from certain players in order to pull it off. 

    According to CBSSports.com, the Panthers have the league's hardest schedule in 2013. While that should be taken with a grain of salt due to the NFL's competitive parity, seeing the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots on the schedule is worrisome. 

    The Panthers overall success will be defined by a number of key games, as Carolina will face off against two-thirds of NFC playoff participants from last season. 

Week 1 vs Seattle Seahawks

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    The Carolina Panthers will open up their 2013 campaign by hosting the Seattle Seahawks. For starters, the Panthers are lucky to get the Seahawks at home, as Seattle went undefeated in the Pacific Northwest last season. 

    While having home-field advantage is a plus, it doesn't even come close to guaranteeing a win in Week 1. 

    The Seahawks qualified for the playoffs last season and won a road playoff game in the Wild Card Round against the Washington Redskins. Although Seattle lost a heartbreaker on the road to the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round, their future appears to be extremely bright. 

    When ranking teams that have the best chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy after winning the next Super Bowl, it's hard to drop the Seahawks out of the top five. 

    Seattle and Carolina have one major thing in common, they are both enjoying the luxury of employing talented and productive quarterbacks on rookie contracts. 

    Russell Wilson was arguably the best quarterback in football over the final five weeks of last season and now has Percy Harvin at his disposal. For all intensive purposes, Wilson and the Seahawks' offense is ready to explode. 

    If the Panthers can upset the Seahawks, they could use that momentum to get off to a quick start. After playing Seattle, Carolina travels to Buffalo and then returns home to host the New York Giants. Both of those games are winnable, which means the Panthers could head into their Week 4 bye at 3-0. 

    Also, a win over the Seahawks would send a message about the Panthers' potential to the league. 

Week 8 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Carolina Panthers don't play their first divisional contest until Week 8 when they will travel to face off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    This matchup will be a good barometer for the Panthers, as this will mark their seventh game of the season. By this point, Carolina should realistically have 3-4 wins, which means a road victory over the Bucs would likely propel them into the upper half of the conference. 

    After starting 2-6 last season, a quick start could mean the difference between making or missing the postseason. Remember the Panthers finished last season by winning five of their last six games, so this team knows how to close. 

    While Josh Freeman is still the favorite to be the Bucs starting quarterback, the team is going to give the newly drafted Mike Glennon plenty of preseason reps. No matter who is under center for Tampa Bay, they should still pose a serious challenge. 

    The Bucs traded for Darrelle Revis and signed safety Dashon Goldson in free agency in two moves that should drastically improve their league worst passing defense. 

    The Panthers will also face a treacherous trio of games after traveling to Tampa, They are scheduled to host the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots with a road contest against the San Francisco 49ers sandwiched in between. 

    A good divisional record is the first step to capturing the NFC South and that effort starts in Tampa Bay on October 24th. 

Week 11 vs New England Patriots

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    The Carolina Panthers only play on Monday night once this season, as they will welcome the New England Patriots to town in Week 11. 

    As all NFL fans know, the Pats are the league's premier regular season team as they have won 60 games over the last five years. That averages out to 12 wins per season, which is something any fan would sign up for. 

    Although the contest isn't until the middle of November, odds are the Panthers will be the underdogs when this game does roll around. 

    Even though New England is a juggernaut, they could be caught looking ahead to their upcoming game against the Denver Broncos that is scheduled for the next week. That isn't to say that the Panthers aren't worth the Patriots attention, but rather that Peyton Manning and the Broncos are amongst the Super Bowl favorites. 

    Realistically, Bill Belichick will have the Pats focused and ready to play when they travel to Carolina in what will be their 11th game of the season. 

    If the Panthers do overcome the Pats, it could be the win that sparks a playoff push. After New England leaves town, Carolina will travel to face off against the Miami Dolphins before returning home to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both of which are winnable games. 

    Beating the Pats would make a statement about the Panthers' legitimacy, but it won't be an easy victory to claim. 

Week 16 vs New Orleans Saints

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    The NFL schedule makers didn't do the Carolina Panther any favors, as they will wrap up their season with games against the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. In a way it's fitting though, as the Panthers should have to go through the teams that have dominated the NFC South over the past four seasons. 

    It's only fitting if the Panthers are in contention for the divisional crown, which is not guaranteed. The way the schedule is laid out, Carolina will have to play its best football down the stretch, which isn't a bad thing. That being said, the Panthers' arduous final month could derail the entire season. 

    The Saints and Panthers don't play for the first time until Week 14 in New Orleans, with the second matchup coming a mere two weeks later in Charlotte. The quick turn around will definitely play a role, as the coaching staffs won't have much time to make adjustments in between contests. 

    The Panthers swept the Saints last season, although Carolina was fortunate to catch New Orleans in Week 2. They won't be so lucky this year, but the Panthers have proven to be formidable down the stretch as well. 

    New Orleans won the NFC South in 2011, so it's not like they haven't had any success recently. Sure, they missed out on the postseason last year but that could be attributed to the absence of Sean Payton. 

    Hopefully the Panthers will be in the midst of an intense playoff race when they welcome the Saints to town, but even if they aren't, a victory over a division rival is always encouraged. 

Week 17 at Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons only lost three games last season, with one of those losses coming against the Carolina Panthers. Truthfully, the Panthers should have swept the Falcons but collapsed defensively late in the fourth quarter in their first meeting. 

    At this point, the Falcons are the favorites to repeat as NFC South champions based upon their well balanced squad. Atlanta finally won a playoff game in the Matt Ryan era, as they knocked off the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round before succumbing to the San Francisco 49ers in heartbreaking manner. 

    The play of Cam Newton will obviously be key, but he dominated the Falcons last year so there is reason for optimism. In his two games against Atlanta last season, Newton threw for 502 yards and four touchdowns while running for another 202 yards. 

    Basically, the Falcons defense had no answer for Newton, which is why the Panthers outplayed Atlanta in the eight quarters they played. 

    Carolina will need more of the same from Newton if they are going to actually sweep the defending NFC South champions this time around. 

    This game has the potential to decide the division, although the Panthers will have to have an efficient season in order to be in position to overtake the Falcons.

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