Conventional wisdom says the Panthers are a tough team to play in December. There's some merit to that, as the Panthers have gone 21-12 in December and January under John Fox.
This year, the Panthers better hope conventional wisdom holds because the December schedule is a killer.
At this point in the season, the Panthers will probably be a position well with a record that could be anywhere from 7-5 to 9-3, depending on injuries and whether Meeks' defense works out.
Around the NFC South, Tampa Bay will probably be nursing a record boasting three or four wins and will be a spoiler at best.
I believe this year the Falcons' defense keeps them grounded, and they might have in the neighborhood of five or six wins at this point. There's just enough hope in Atlanta to make them a pain for their opponents, but they'll realistically be out of the playoff hunt.
After Sean Payton's traditional slow start, brought on this year by their starting ends missing the first four games, New Orleans will have rebounded with six or seven wins by now. Even though they'll be around second place, many experts will have them tabbed as eventual division winners.
So, the Panthers' games are crucial, particularly given that the Saints' schedule is reasonable in December. Both teams finish the season at Bank of America Stadium. If the Saints win the first meeting, that game on Week 17 will probably decide the division champion.
Granted, it's all moot if lightning strikes in Atlanta again or if the Saints and Panthers combine to put 30 players on the IR list.
But, we don't think of such things in July. We just look at 2009 with the typical offseason rose-colored glasses. We know all the rookies will work out, the new defense will be solid, and our veterans still have a year left in the tank.
Games 13 through 16
In December of 2008, the Panthers had problems with depth at defensive tackle. Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu both missed games due to injury, and their backups just didn't have the talent to replace them.
The ends played better though, with Tyler Brayton, Charles Johnson, and Julius Peppers combining for eight sacks during that period. Brayton looked comfortable in his role, and got half his sacks for the season during this span. Johnson also came on strong, and he was effective on third down when Brayton moved inside to spell Kemoeatu.
If the interior of the line holds up this year, and if Everette Brown doesn't pull a rookie disappearing act in December, then the new Panther defense should be in good shape. The Panthers will probably give up yards, particularly in the first half of the season, but look for them to tighten up now, particularly in points surrendered.
Week 14 at the New England Patriots
2008 Record: 11-5
2008 Offensive Rank: 5th (12th in Passing, 6th in Rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 10th (11th in Passing, 15th against the run)
Ok, let's get this out of the way. Aside from a few players, no one's left to remember 2003. It's not a rallying cry any more, it's gone, forgotten, and won't be a motivating factor in this game.
At this point, the only Super Bowl the Panthers need to be thinking about is Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.
Don't expect Brady to suffer lingering effects from his knee surgery, either. Drama and suspense sell newspapers, so every minor setback in his recovery has been overblown and sensationalized.
Nowadays, it would almost be news if a player doesn't come back from knee surgery. Given that this was Brady's first knee surgery, and it wasn't from a chronic condition, expect him to be playing as if it never happened by now.
Which, of course, isn't good news for the Panthers. It's also a bad sign that the game is being played in Foxboro in December. It's going to be cold.
But it should still be a good matchup. Good enough that this will be a candidate for flexible scheduling. And a later start will mean for an even colder game.
The Patriot offense should be as good as the one that brought them to a 16-0 regular-season record in 2007. With Brady back, Randy Moss will return to form, and expect Ben Watson to rebound as a short yardage and goal-line threat as well.
With Brady throwing the ball, Wes Welker will once again have a monster year. Add in Joey Galloway, and the receiving corps should be outstanding.
The running game chewed through backs in 2008, but the addition of Fred Taylor may help Lawrence Maroney finish the season off the injury list.
The New England offense could be the best in the NFL. Think about a unit like the Saints and give them enough toughness to finish off opponents, and you have the Patriots. Scared yet?
But the Patriots' defense has question marks. Unfortunately, question marks don't automatically translate to weaknesses. They just have a number of new faces on that side of the ball this year.
They're solid on the line with Richard Seymour and Ty Warren on the ends, and they'll be playing Vince Wilfork or second-round draft pick Ron Brace in the middle.
It's at linebacker, for a change, where you can expect the Patriots to struggle. Jerrod Mayo is a great player, but there's no question that Adalius Thomas and Tedy Bruschi are starting to show their age.
The Patriots only had 31 sacks last year, and after Richard Seymour, no player had more than five. In a 3-4 set, you expect more from your linebackers, and the Patriots didn't get it.
In the secondary, the Patriots have their most question marks, but they shouldn't have problems.
As usual, they needed help at cornerback. To address this, they signed Leigh Bodden from the Lions, and he's got a world of potential. They also nabbed one of the best corners in the draft in Darius Butler.
One of them should work out fine on one side, and second-year player Jonathan Wilhite will take the other.
Veteran safety Rodney Harrison retired, leaving another question mark that will probably be answered by Brandon Meriweather. James Sanders is a reliable free safety who looks like he has a bright future ahead of him.
Overall, the defense looks solid if not spectacular. Given the Patriot offense, they just need to keep the other teams from hitting the big plays, and they're more than capable of doing that.
If none of this sounds like good news, well it's not. The Patriots will be one of the best teams in the NFL this year; they'll be at home; and the weather will be on their side.
Or will it? The one scenario that might play out in the Panthers' favor is if the weather is particularly bad. When that's the case, the passing game is affected first, and the Panthers are a running team.
Ron Meeks also knows the Patriots well. Last year, his Colts held Matt Cassell to 15 points. The year before, his defense held the high-flying Patriots to 24, their second lowest output of the season.
If he has the Panthers playing well on that side of the ball, if the weather's not pass-friendly, and if the Patriots are at all looking ahead to the following week's game at Buffalo, then there's a shot at stealing one here.
Given the Patriots' home record, though, it's probably not one you want to count on. From here, it looks like a tough week for the Panthers.
Carolina and New England have split their matchups 2-2.
Week 15, the Minnesota Vikings
2008 Record: 10-6
2008 Offensive Rank: 17th (25th in passing, 5th in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 6th (18th in Passing, 1st against the run)
This is going to be another revenge-type game, just for redemption purposes. Last year, Jake Delhomme turned in a stinker of a game in Minnesota, fumbling the ball three times and getting sacked five times
Both Delhomme and his line will probably be thinking about that game on this day.
But that was against a desperate Viking team, one trying to keep it's season intact. Their victory against the Panthers helped them avoid an 0-3 start and began a four-game winning streak.
This year, things will be different for Minnesota. For one, their quarterback will be self-destructing by this point.
Either they sign Brett Favre, and he starts breaking down in November, or they end up with Sage Rosenfels or Tavaris Jackson, neither of whom is good enough to put together a complete season.
Jackson has accuracy issues and can't read a defense. Rosenfels has a mediocre arm and can look good at first glance, but the more he plays the worse he gets. On the road, neither of these players will shine.
So, the Vikings will once again have to make do with the defense and the running game. Which is fine when you start Adrian Peterson.
Peterson ran for 1,760 yards en route to the rushing title last year and is backed up by Chester Taylor, who is a good third-down back. If Favre does play in Minnesota, both of these players will benefit during the first half of the season, as teams will have to respect the pass.
Another big beneficiary of the Favre effect will be Bernard Berrian, who's made a career of being much more talented than his quarterbacks. The other receivers are Sidney Rice, Bobby Wade, and the rookie Percy Harvin.
Harvin is supposed to be a big-play athlete for the Vikings, but he has major durability issues and played in a system that doesn't translate well to the NFL. He will probably be fighting off the bust label about now, if he hasn't been suspended for violating the league's drug policy.
On the line, the left side is solid, but the center is new and the right tackle is still a big question mark. That's not to say the running game will suffer, but protection may be more of an issue this year.
On the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota is set. Jarred Allen, Ray Edwards, and the Williams Wall form one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL.
The only chink in that foursome is Pat Williams' age; he'll turn 37 during the season.
But behind them the Vikings will get E.J. Henderson back, who will team with Chad Greenway and Ben Leber to form a very solid middle of the defense.
The only vulnerable spot on the entire defense is at cornerback. Cedric Griffin can be inconsistent, and they're thin in general in the secondary. If the Vikings get dinged up back there, then they're going to suffer.
It's likely that once again they'll be vulnerable to the pass, but very solid against the run.
In 2008, the Vikings held DeAngelo Williams to 27 yards on the ground. That was at the Dome, though, and early in the season when the Panthers' line was still coming together. In Charlotte, you won't see him go down as easy.
Plus, the Vikings are also candidates to get torched by Steve Smith. He'll be in his typical December form and their secondary can be exploited.
This is only the second time the Vikings have ever played in Charlotte. They lost the last time they were here, and hopefully, they won't feel welcome this time either.
The Vikings enjoy a 5-3 lifetime record against the Panthers.
Week 16, at the New York Giants
2008 Record: 11-5
2008 Offensive Rank: 7th (18th in passing, 1st in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 5th (8th in Passing, 9th against the run)
In the most entertaining game the Panthers played last year, the New York Giants edged Carolina in overtime in New York. NFL executives liked it so much they arranged for a rematch in 2009.
That contest was marked by solid rushing efforts by both teams. Unfortunately, the Panthers were without Maake Kemoeatu, their big run stuffer in the middle. When Damione Lewis went down as well, it set the table for Derrick Ward's stat-killing run that won it for the Giants at the end of the game.
These two teams match up well together, and this should be another great contest between them.
The Giants will be coming off a bruising game on Monday night against the Redskins, and will be in the thick of a difficult stretch run.
Given that they go through the rest of the NFC East in the three games before this, and that they've got a short week, they could be a little dinged up for this matchup.
In addition the winds in the Meadowlands this time of year make it difficult for all quarterbacks. This game will be decided on the ground.
Which may suit the Giants fine. They have Brandon Jacobs, after all, and Ahmad Bradshaw should work out well as a solid No. 2 back. The Giants also drafted a real sleeper in Andre Brown out of N.C. State, so the three-headed attack may be alive and well in New York even with Derrick Ward's departure to Tampa Bay.
The Giants' passing game may be a problem. Eli Manning needs a big posession receiver who can stretch the field, and he may not have one this year. Last year, when Plaxico Burress was in the lineup, Manning posted an average rating of 102.7. Without Burress, he had an average of 68.6.
There's hope that UNC's Hakeem Nicks can fill the void left by Burress, but first-round receivers are never sure things.
On the bright side, the offensive line is in great shape, and they have a good receiving threat at tight end in Kevin Boss. Still, the Giants' offense won't scare anyone.
The defense is another story. They have the ability to bring an enormous amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Mathias Kiwanuka in rotation are bad enough. Add an interior of Chris Canty and Barry Cofield with all of their bench talent, and it's easy to see why the Giants can bring more pressure than anyone else in the league.
The line is so good, it helps mask their relative weaknesses at linebacker. They signed Michael Boley from Atlanta, but Antonio Pierce is showing his age, and Danny Clark doesn't scare anyone.
In the secondary, Corey Webster has the makings of a star cornerback, and the monster rush generated by the front four helps make Aaron Ross look like one too.
The best defensive back the Giants have is at safety with second-year man Kenny Phillips. As a group, this secondary is fast, talented, and solid all-around.
So, while the Giants defense may be a little soft in the middle, it's still good enough to be among the league's elite. If they aren't too banged up, it could be a very tough game for Jake Delhomme and company.
Be that as it may, last year the Giants' defense looked pretty good, too. Yet DeAngelo Williams rushed for 108 yards and four touchdowns, and Jonathan Stewart added 30 more of his own.
The Panthers rang up 28 points on the home team, and had Kasay not sailed wide right at the end of regulation, they would have won.
Since he's been in Carolina, John Fox has faced the Giants at the Meadowlands three times, winning two and forcing the third to overtime. At first glance, this looks like a tough game, but the Panthers are more than capable of stealing the victory.
Carolina has a 3-2 edge against the New York Giants.
Week 17, The New Orleans Saints
2008 Record: 9-7
2008 Offensive Rank: 1st (1st in Passing, 28th in Rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 23rd (23rd in Passing, 17th against the run)
Lets assume things have gone right for the Panthers. They've stayed healthy, and the defense has improved somewhat. Sure they play some tough teams, but they're a tough team, too.
If that's the case, Carolina may come into this game with a 10-5 record, maybe scoring upsets against Dallas and New York and getting a win in Arizona. As they did in 2008, they've protected their home turf.
But New Orleans hasn't been a slouch either. After a slow start, they'll probably be one of the better teams in the league right now. They'll have a killer offense, and the defense won't be a slouch either.
In 2008, the Saints had a better defense than the 11-5 Falcons. They'll likely improve on that in 2009.
New Orleans will be deadly at home, but they don't play nearly as well on the road. Last year, they were 6-2 at home and 2-6 on the road. Much of that could be due to quarterback play.
At home, Drew Brees enjoyed a stellar quarterback rating of 115.1. On the road, it was a much more pedestrian 80.3.
That's not unusual for an NFL quarterback, but when so much of the offense in New Orleans is centered on Brees' play, it's no wonder they stumbled on the road in 2008.
This season should be no different. The Saints did little in the offseason to improve their running attack, which was one of the worst in the league. They're invested in their quarterback, and why not? He may threaten Marino's record again.
Their defense will likely be much better. Like the rest of the South, the Saints will be facing much better offenses than they did in 2008, but the talent level will improve even if the stats don't.
Even though they'll be starting slow, this team should be at or around the 9-6 mark right now. So if they win, they'll get the benefit of a tiebreaker on the Panthers; if both teams finish 10-6, the Saints will go to the playoffs, and the Panthers may be on the outside looking in.
This will be a big-time game for both teams. But the Saints are on the road, and if the Panthers and the crowd can rattle Brees at all, they won't be able to keep up with the playmaking ability of Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams.
That's a big if though. Brees hasn't earned a reputation as a big-time quarterback by folding under pressure.
The Panthers will have all the advantages in this game, but they'll need to step it up anyway to finish the season with a win. Kind of makes you glad Delhomme's under center, huh?
Look for a big win here, whether things are going well or not.
Carolina leads the series 16-12.
The NFL schedule-makers certainly did a good job providing for some entertaining and competitive games this December.
To be sure, many Carolina fans would prefer a slate of pushovers to finish the year, but that type of schedule doesn't make any team playoff-ready.
The Panthers will probably split these games. Aside from New England, all of them are very winnable, and every game is meaningful to the Panthers. Unfortunately, these games are meaningful to their opponents as well.
Carolina will have one of the strongest running games in the league. If the defense plays as well as Meeks' past defenses, they'll be more than capable of a split here and of winning the division.
During the last four games, a split will probably be enough to put the Panthers in the playoffs. And if they can get there with their starters largely intact, expect a little more success than they had last year.
And that will suit Panthers fans just fine.