This season looks to be much the same as last season, but this time around, the Panthers have been scheduled with a true test. Games against the NFC East, the Patriots, and their usual division games will test the Panthers' strengths to their limits, while exposing any soft underbelly of weakness.
Carolina made very little noise during the offseason for various reasons, but the most important offseason move they made was bringing back 21 of 22 starters from last year's team. The odd man out is defensive back Ken Lucas, who found his home back in Seattle.
The Panthers even got disgruntled defensive end Julius Peppers to sign his franchise tender after a four-month holdout.
Things are looking up for Carolina, much like they did last season at this time.
The Panthers return one of the best offensive lines in the league, assuring that we should see more of a dominating running game like last year, but this time there may be a third running back to mix into the rotation in rookie sensation Mike Goodson.
The Texas A&M product did not have quite the stellar career that his highlights make out. In fact, his best season statistically was in 2006, when he rushed for 847 yards and four touchdowns, averaging a conference-high 6.7 yards per carry, and also caught 17 passes for 113 yards.
He had a career-high 127 yards against Oklahoma and scored a critical 41-yard touchdown against the Texas Longhorns, who had the nation's leading rush defense.
The Panthers also focused mainly on the defensive side of the ball in the first couple rounds of the draft.
Carolina pretty much stole Florida State defensive end Everette Brown, who fell to the second round of the draft. Brown is in the top three FSU defensive players statistically in school history, just behind the Eagles' Brodrick Bunkley.
Carolina also drafted Troy defensive back Sherrod Martin in the second round, a move that will help bolster the defensive secondary. Martin should fill in nicely in a unit without the services of Lucas.
The third pick made by the Panthers was defensive tackle Corey Irvin out of the University of Georgia. Irvin will help anchor a defensive line that had a problem getting into the quarterback's face last season.
In the end, the Panthers have a tough season ahead of them. In the first three games Carolina jumps right into the frying pan, playing at home against Philadelphia, going on the road to Atlanta in Week Two, and then making a Monday night visit to the Dallas Cowboys in Week Three.
The Panthers wrap up the first quarter of the season against the Redskins after the Bye Week—the Bye Week that early is just stupid for any team.
The first quarter of the season is probably about the toughest for Carolina, and while they could start 4-0, I'm going to say they most likely take a loss to the Falcons, finishing the first quarter with a record of 3-1.
After the Bye Week, the Panthers have been a little sluggish lately at getting back into their groove. But the second quarter is a little less intimidating, with games against Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Arizona, and New Orleans.
The Panthers must face the Redskins first—I've already labeled the outcome, but the Bye Week inconveniently broke up the first quarter of games, so coming out of the Bye, I call delay of game—but it should be to Carolina's benefit, since they will face Washington in Charlotte.
Home crowd advantage is always nice, and the fans should have a winning record to cheer about.
Tampa Bay literally got stripped of almost everything this past offseason and is in a long-term rebuilding mode. New head coach, new defensive coordinator, new quarterbacks...the list goes on and on.
However, if Tampa Bay wants a shot at beating the Panthers, it's in Week Six when Carolina comes to town. The Panthers have a rough time playing the Bucs in Tampa.
Week Seven brings Buffalo to Charlotte. At this point, the Bills might have a better than even record with newly acquired receiver Terrell Owens. But that acquisition won't faze Carolina, as the defensive backfield should be able to cover Owens and make plays to keep the ball away from him.
Week Eight brings the rematch, a sort of grudge match if you will, when Arizona hosts the Panthers in the desert.
Arizona is going to be an interesting team to watch, after losing their head coach and offensive coordinator, I believe it was. Excuse me if I'm mistaken, but last year was the first time I had ever heard of the Cardinals, so I'm a little foggy when it comes to their coaching personnel.
I'm not foggy when it comes to the players—playmakers like Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Kurt Warner. They are the big three on that offense. But how it all works out now that some sideline personnel are not there anymore remains to be seen. Carolina travels well, and I'm giving this game to the Cats.
Going to New Orleans is never a pleasurable environment to play in. The crowd noise gets louder than any stadium in the league—ANY stadium in the league. Saints fans are the loudest bunch unless, of course, an unexpected chain of events unfolds—then you can hear a pin drop.
I hate calling losses against Carolina, but since the Saints are something of a question mark at this point of the offseason, I'm going to give them the win in this matchup. Not a great way for the Panthers to begin the third quarter, but they should recover nicely in the following weeks.
At the midway point of the season, Carolina finishes with a 2-2 record in this section, the Bucs delivering an opening second quarter loss to the Panthers, and New Orleans closing the quarter delivering Carolina their third loss of the season.
The third quarter of the season gets a little interesting. Carolina has two home games against Atlanta and Miami, a road trip to East Rutherford to play Rex Ryan's Jets, and then they're back home in Week 13 for a rematch against Tampa.
In Week 10, the Panthers host the Dirty Birds, Atlanta, in their second of two games. Atlanta may have won the first matchup, but Carolina takes this one, splitting the series.
After the win over the Falcons, the Cats will be licking their chops in anticipation of some Tuna—I mean the Dolphins come to Charlotte in Week 11. This game is something of a question mark to me. Not that I don't think the Panthers will win; they definitely should.
What high school gimmicky offensive game plan will the Dolphins think up this year? Granted, it worked for them last year and turned their season around, but how much longer can the Wildcat play sustain life in the NFL? It can't. The Panthers will have that play for breakfast, Tuna for lunch, and Dolphin for dinner. Corny, no?
I digress. I have to stop with the attempts at humor, if only to save whatever's left of my already questionable reputation.
Week 12 should be a relatively easy win for the Panthers, when they travel to East Rutherford, NJ to take on the New York Jets.
On a side note, if the Jets are having a bad season at this point, they will become the New York Rex—word play is just so much fun. This team really shouldn't give Carolina much of a problem offensively, as they will be starting a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez, a player whom I think will do better in his second year in the league.
The final game of the third quarter is a home game against the Buccaneers. At this point of the season, Tampa's been through a lot. They most likely will have slowed down and be somewhat banged up, and they'll be looking to play spoiler to any team with a shot at the playoffs.
The bright side, however, is this game is played in Charlotte, giving Carolina that home crowd boost, and so long as everything goes as planned, the whine—no, I meant wine—and cheesy crowd, myself included, should be quite satisfied with a Carolina victory over the much-hated Buccaneers.
The final quarter of the season could be about as tricky as the first quarter was. The first and fourth quarters of the Panthers' season can be compared to two pieces of stale bread, really: tough, chewy, and not the easiest to get through—a struggle, more or less.
Going to New England in December is probably the equivalent of the seventh circle of hell for any visiting team. The fans are obnoxious, more so than Eagles fans, but more interesting is that after Brady went down last season, their fans are just as phony as New England's Super Bowl rings!
The schedule makers did no favors for Carolina in the final quarter of the season. The game against Minnesota might be something of a respite compared to the other three games the Panthers must win.
The Panthers will be tested strongly by the Giants yet again, but they won't let the Giants off with a win this time. The tables have turned in favor of Carolina in this rematch, as they added a third member to the already potent rushing attack. They should slide past New York in the end, winning by no less than seven points.
The Panthers then wrap up what looks to be a winning season with a home game against the Saints. Carolina will take that game and add it to the win column
To keep matters plain and simple, I see the Panthers only losing to New England in the fourth quarter. Not bad for a team that is supposed to finish no better than 7-9 or 8-8. The reason for the loss to the Pats is simple: Tom Brady.
At the end of the season, the Panthers look to amass a winning record of 12-4, which, according to Eagles writer Dan Parzych, will put the Panthers behind the Eagles, who will have a record of 13-3, and an eventual date with Carolina in the NFC Championship, where I predict a Panthers win.