Analyzing the Carolina Panthers' 2014 Schedule
The NFL released the 2014 schedule, and players and fans alike are getting ready for next season with great anticipation. The Carolina Panthers overcame a difficult schedule last year (one that was the toughest in the league) and clinched the NFC South title.
The new campaign suggests an easier road, but the team will be a shell of its former self—most notably on offense where the Panthers saw a mass exodus of their wide receivers. Of course, there have been new additions, and it's too early to speculate about the level of success that Carolina will experience in the fall.
Since Bleacher Report's Knox Bardeen covered the Panthers' schedule on a week-by-week basis, this article will serve as an analytical piece regarding the different factors that have comprised Carolina's new schedule and what to expect when the season gets under way.
Carolina will face familiar foes and experience new obstacles as it attempts to record two consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Strength of Schedule
Carolina has a more favorable schedule—as far as last season's records are concerned. The Panthers' strength of schedule is ranked 22nd in the league, as opponents have a combined 2013 record of 120-134-2 (.473). But the teams that had high expectations in 2013 should rebound in 2014.
It doesn't help that Carolina is scheduled to play six teams that were in the playoffs last year. Factor that along with those teams that will have key players returning, and the goal of repeating as division champions becomes a formidable task.
The Panthers will play three prime-time games, and none of them are poor matchups. Their first one of the season will be a Sunday night affair versus Pittsburgh. Carolina has not defeated the Steelers for some time, and ending the losing streak should be a small in-season goal. The Panthers' last win over the Steelers came on December 22, 1996.
It should be noted the last game between these two teams was also played during prime time, when Pittsburgh beat up a poor Carolina squad, 27-3.
Weeks 9 and 10 will feature the Panthers playing back-to-back prime-time games.
The first will be against division rival New Orleans on Thursday night. The Saints will have a score to settle about losing the division crown after having the inside track late in the 2013 season. The following week will have Carolina traveling to Philadelphia for Monday Night Football.
Both games should be exciting and are at the midpoint of the season. These games should give fans an idea of which teams look to be contenders in 2014.
Finally, the Panthers play in the NFC South.
Only Two Games Are Indoors
The Panthers will be playing 14 of their games the way it should be: outdoors. Trips to Atlanta and New Orleans will be the only times that Carolina will play indoors. Since the team is acclimated to playing in the elements, playing inside with a controlled environment should allow for a slight edge.
Of course, playing inside the Georgia Dome and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome are never easy challenges. The Panthers have struggled in Atlanta, winning there once since the Ron Rivera-Cam Newton era began in 2011. The same can be said about Carolina's visits to New Orleans.
Picking up wins at both venues will be important to winning the division. If not, Carolina will have to take advantage of playing both teams outside when they hook up in Charlotte. This was the reason why the Panthers were able to steal one away from New Orleans in Week 16 last year, when the teams played in heavy rain.
Cold Weather Will Test the Team
The Carolina Panthers will most likely experience one of the coldest games in franchise history with a trip to Minnesota late in the season. Road games to Green Bay and Cincinnati shouldn't be too bad, as both will be played in October—before the really harsh weather sets in.
The trip to Minnesota will be interesting.
Carolina dominated the Vikings last year, but that matchup was in the comfortable, controlled climate of the now demolished Metrodome. The 2014 meeting will be outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium, home of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The average temperature during that time is between the high 20s and high 30s. It won't matter if the sun is shining or not, game-time temps may not be that pleasant. Factor in a wind chill, and it could be a miserable game for the Panthers.
In all fairness, the Vikings will be trying to adjust to the adverse temperatures as well and may not have quite the advantage.
Perfectly Positioned Bye Week
Carolina finally gets a bye week that will be late in the season and serve as an opportunity to regroup (if necessary), heal and get in an extra week of preparation. The Panthers haven't been good following a bye week with Ron Rivera as coach. During his tenure, the team is 0-3 in its first game after a week off.
While the opponent after the bye is Minnesota, the Panthers will not only have to prepare for the Vikings' game plan but for the weather as well.
Regardless, it is nice that Carolina doesn't have a bye week before the halfway point of the season.
This will bode well for the Panthers if they are in the midst of fighting for the division or a playoff spot. A repeat of last year's success would not only mean a potential bye week in the playoffs but give Carolina another week of rest within a seven-week period.
The real challenge will be getting a win after taking a week off.
Carolina will have high expectations in 2014. Last year, the team came out of nowhere to secure its first division title in five years and renew faith in the fanbase. However, there are a lot of new faces, especially on offense.
The defense will be counted on to keep the Panthers in many games as it will be the team's biggest strength. If Carolina cannot get it together offensively, another mediocre or below-average season could be in store for the franchise.
However, the coaching staff has made the most of the personnel, and Cam Newton is emerging as one of the brightest stars of the game. His leadership will be essential not only on offense but to the entire team.
An 8-8 finish seems to be a reasonable expectation, given the circumstances of the offseason, but Carolina is capable of winning 10 games or more.