While the Panthers are camping in the smothering mid-summer heat of Spartanburg, fans back in the Queen City are getting geared up for this Saturday's Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium. Fan Fest is the first chance for fans who haven't made the trek down to the Sparkle City to see the Panthers in action, and serves as the real kickoff to the NFL season in Charlotte.
With this occasion comes the last month or so of waiting anxiously for the season to begin. Aside from following Panthers camp on Twitter (via Panthers.com's Andrew Mason, @cpanthers) and maintaining a steady ritualistic knock on the wooden objects in my office to prevent any further injuries, there is not much that can occupy the mind from realizing that a new NFL season is in sight.
Much has been made of the way that history stacks up against this year's Panthers squad. Never before has a Panthers team been to the playoffs in consecutive years. In fact, there has never been an instance where the team has followed a playoff appearance with a winning record.
There are many theories as to the reasoning behind this depressing trend, but as Coach Fox would say, "It is what it is." It's a trend. Trends, much like streaks and records, are meant to be broken. It is completely unfair for this years team to be written off before they take the field in September simply because of a historical nuance.
The main reason for this is that the team that will represent the Carolinas in 2009 is arguably in the best position of any that has come before them.
Twenty of 22 starters (remember to subtract Kemo now) will take the field, barring injury (where's that wood?), when the Philadelphia Eagles come to town on September 13. Twenty of 22 is a solid number for any team, but is especially intriguing when it applies to a team who had a 12-4 record and won their division.
Granted, the depth behind these starters is a lot thinner than it was last year, but the fact remains the same that the core of the team is completely together and has had a full offseason together to gel and develop more chemistry.
Jake Delhomme has said that the Panthers have spent time adding a lot of new plays to last year's offense because of the simple fact that all 11 starters are back.
Ron Meeks has the defense playing with a major chip on their shoulder, as is evidenced by the number of heavy hits that have been dished out in the first few days of camp.
Chris Gamble has expressed his approval of the new defensive scheme and says that it fits very well into his skill set. That seems to be the general consensus from those following the happenings in Spartanburg.
All of this leads us to the most important piece of the Panthers puzzle in 2009, the schedule.
No team has ever won or lost anything before the season has started and that is one trend that I don't see being broken anytime soon.
A lot has been made out of the Panthers having the league's second-toughest schedule, but in reality, the strength of schedule can't be measured until about the midway point of the season.
The initial rankings are based on last year's records. They don't take into consideration the personnel changes, coaching changes, injuries, scheme adjustments, chemistry, or any of a slew of other factors that determine a team's success in a given year.
Critics will be quick to say that the Panthers will not be able to hang with the caliber of teams that they have been matched against. I dare ask them how many thought, at this point last year, that the Cardinals would come within a few minutes of winning the Super Bowl, or that Kurt Warner would basically resurrect his career to take them there?
Nothing is set in stone in August except for the dates that the matchups will be played. Because of that, we will take a glance (hence the title) at the Panthers schedule. We will not analyze it in-depth, run down the positional matchups, or try to pinpoint what the Panthers will have to do to win each game.
Instead, we will simply look at patterns in the schedule, highlight a few potentially interesting and critical matchups, and see where the team might see prosperity or adversity.
As is the case with a large majority of preseason musings, everything that follows this sentence has the potential to be completely wrong. That's why its called a PREview.
Out of the Gates
The Panthers will have no time to get acclimated to the new season, as their first three games are all against quality opponents. These three games will be a telling sign as to how the Panthers have improved from last year, but could also signal a long year ahead for the team.
For starters, we get to open the season at home, where the Panthers were 8-0 during the regular season last year. Fans at Bank Of America Stadium regularly provided a raucous atmosphere during last year's NFC South Championship run, and one can only assume the volume will be cranked up to ring in the new season.
A home opener is a boost for any team, and the fact that we won't have to open the season in a hostile environment like Lincoln Financial Field gives us a leg up on McNabb and Co. to start things off.
It is also a good thing that Atlanta opens their season at home in Week One, meaning that we won't have to try to play party-crashers in our first road affair. The I-85 rivalry gets an early jump for the second year in a row, and this year's matchup of these two teams could put some renewed emphasis in the rivalry itself.
We score a double whammy of sorts by going to Dallas in Week Three. Not only will they have their home opener out of the way, they will have also had their first primetime game in the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium by the time we come calling for Monday Night Football. No doubt the place will be rocking, but it could be worse. This game will be pivotal for the Panthers heading into their bye week, and will be a good measuring stick for the start of the year.
The Early Bye
A downside to the 2009 schedule is the early bye week. Last year, the Panthers had the perfect bye week in Week Nine. They played eight, rested a week, and played eight more. The early bye means that the Panthers will play football for at least 13 straight weeks from October to January, raising the potential for injuries and other fatigue-related atrocities.
The "Light" Stretch
If there was a stretch on the schedule that you could call a light spot, it would be the three game stretch of vs. Washington, @ Tampa Bay, vs. Buffalo that the Panthers will face coming out of their bye.
None of these three teams will be a cake walk, but considering the challenges that face the Panthers down the stretch again this year, it could be as close as it gets.
Washington always seems to start strong and peter out towards the middle of the year, and the last time the Panthers faced the Redskins (albeit in the preseason) they absolutely ran them out of the building.
Tampa Bay seems destined for a down year, although it's never easy to go down to Raymond James and pull out a win. The Buffalo game will see the T.O. circus come to town, but unless the Bills have seriously addressed the concerns that lead to their collapse last year, the Panthers have the leg up on this one as well.
Depending on how the season starts, the following two games, @ Arizona and @ New Orleans could also be grouped into this "light" stretch.
Arizona won't surprise anybody this year after their Cinderella run in 2008, and the Panthers will definitely have a serious chip on their shoulder when they head out west for that game.
New Orleans will have Drew Brees back to lead a high-powered offense, but they will have had to improve their defense to be contenders at this time of the year.
The Home/Away Balance
The Panthers will play five of their first eight games of the season on the road, but outside of Dallas won't have to play in any notoriously hostile environments that are outside of their division. The second half of the schedule is the opposite, with five of the last eight games at home. The only place the Panthers have to travel after they get home from New Orleans in Week Nine is the bitter cold Northeast.
Their first matchup against each of their division opponents will be on the road as well, meaning that the more critical divisional matchups will be played in Charlotte.
The Panthers will return to Charlotte for a two game stretch in Weeks 10 and 11, facing Atlanta and Miami. This will be the only time during the regular season that the Panthers are home for two weeks in a row.
By this time, the Atlanta game will carry a significant meaning, as the two teams will likely be in the thick of the NFC South race. The Miami game will be a Thursday night game on the NFL Network and should prove to be an interesting matchup.
Miami is another team who carries a question mark in my book heading into the season due to the awareness of the Wildcat formation that is present around the league now. If the Wildcat is shut down, do the Dolphins really have the tools to make it back to the playoffs?
To The Tundra
Following the Miami game, the Panthers will make the first of three trips over a five week span to the freezing cold Northeast. Their first stop will be the Meadowlands for a date with the New York Jets. Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez will help Kris Jenkins welcome his former team to town on November 29.
This stretch will see the Panthers go from New York, to Charlotte, to Boston, to Charlotte, and back to New York before heading home to close the season. The five-game stretch will look like this, @Jets, vs. Tampa Bay, @ New England, vs. Minnesota, @ Giants.
This stretch is probably the toughest of the year for the Panthers, as Tom Brady (assuming his knee is as good as he says it is) and company in cold weather are close to unstoppable and the team will have to revisit the site of the Giants' 300+ yard rushing performance that relegated the Panthers to the number two seed in the playoffs last year.
The game against Minnesota will be the Sunday Night matchup in Week 15 and could be a playoff preview if the Vikings can figure their quarterback situation out.
This five week period of time could make or break the season for the Panthers, but could give them some useful experience should they be in the middle of making a push towards the playoffs at this point.
The Panthers will close out the season in the same place they started it, in the friendly confines of Bank of America Stadium. New Orleans will try to spoil the end of the year party for Carolina, and I can't help but remember the 2004-05 season when our last hope for a playoff spot was blocked away with the Saints' special teams unit on a 60+ yard field goal attempt by John Kasay.
Hopefully the Panthers will have their fate in their own hands by the time Week 17 rolls around this year, but it has become somewhat of a tradition to close the season out with the Saints, as we have done so in four of the last six years, including last year when we clinched the NFC South title in a comeback victory.
So, there you have it. A preview of the 2009 schedule that's not too shallow but not too deep.
The Panthers certainly have their fair share of obstacles in front of them, but what fun would the NFL season be without those obstacles? Do you really think that an entire nation full of people would be chomping at the bit to get the show on the road if you could map the results a month before the show began?
Not a chance. Here's to hoping your countdown to September 10 is a smooth one.
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