Carolina Panthers 2012 NFL Schedule: Game-by-Game Predictions, Info and Analysis

Jimmy Grappone@cltsportshubCorrespondent IApril 18, 2012

Carolina Panthers 2012 NFL Schedule: Game-by-Game Predictions, Info and Analysis

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    The Carolina Panthers got their first look at the 2012 NFL schedule this week, and I predict that Cam Newton, Steve Smith and company will prove the Carolina Panthers are a playoff-caliber team in the first four weeks of the season. 

    The Carolina Panthers play each of their NFC South rivals and the New York Giants in their first four games, so a successful September will go a long away in setting the season's tone and establishing the Panthers as a player in the NFC.

    Carolina's schedule is highlighted by road trips to each of head coach Ron Rivera's former teams, the Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles, and a home date with Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos.

    In addition to playing the usual home-and-away series against their NFC South rivals, the Panthers will also play each team from the AFC West and the NFC East as part of their non-division schedule.

    The Panthers have the NFL's 10th-hardest strength-of-schedule, and there are plenty of potential pitfalls along the way.

    However, with Cam Newton's improvement and the core of its high-scoring offense returning for another season together, along with an improved defense and special teams in 2012, the Panthers have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.

    Read on for my predictions for each game on the Carolina Panthers' 2012 NFL schedule.

Week 1: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Similar to San Diego, which is known for having the best weather in America, Tampa may have too nice of a climate for a professional football team.

    The weather is always great, the pristine white sandy beaches of Clearwater and St. Pete and countless other small towns are open year round, and the Gulf of Mexico is right there to provide world-class saltwater angling.

    The Carolina Panthers first played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season in Week 13 when Cam Newton hooked 2011 Rookie of the Year honors by running for three touchdowns against the Bucs to break Steve Grogan's record for most scoring runs by a quarterback in a single season.

    The Panthers won that game in Tampa, 38-19, and gave up the distinction they held in 2010 as the worst team in the NFC South. Carolina went on to finish third in the division while the Bucs finished fourth.

    If the Panthers are to continue their rise up the NFC South food chain in 2012, they will need to get another Florida win along the way, this time to open the season.

    Prediction: Bucs 16, Panthers 24

    Overall Record: 1-0

Week 2: New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers

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    The New Orleans Saints remain the team to beat in the NFC South, despite the Bounty Gate controversy that has clouded the team's offseason and earned Saints head coach Sean Payton a one-year suspension away from the team.

    Associate head coach, Joe Vitt, will coach the Saints throughout the offseason and preseason, then he will serve his own suspension for the first six weeks of the season before being allowed back on the sideline.

    The Saints' may be limping instead of marching early this season in the midst of all the distractions, and that will show in the Saints' road performances where they will struggle to finish the season at .500.

    In 2011, the Panthers nearly defeated New Orleans at home in Week 5, but Drew Brees led the Saints on an 89-yard, six minute drive to go ahead 30-27 and steal a win for the Saints with less than a minute left on the clock.

    This year, Cam Newton and the Panthers will flip the script on the Saints in Charlotte with a long, game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.

    Prediction: Panthers 30, Saints 24

    Overall Record: 2-0

Week 3: New York Giants at Carolina Panthers

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    KICKOFF TIME: 8:20 EST (Thursday Night)


    Cam Newton should have a giant chip on his shoulder when the New York Giants come to town for an NFL Network special Thursday night game in Week 3.

    Newton was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2011 as Eli Manning's replacement after the Giants defeated the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers on the road to Super Bowl 46.

    Manning has since been elevated to elite-status in the eyes of most NFL pundits after winning his second Super Bowl title and MVP award—that's one more of each than his big brother, so far, if anyone is counting—and Newton aspires to achieve the same milestones as a Panther.

    The Panthers' defense will be out to prove it can slow down the Giants' high-octane passing attack and Pro Bowl-caliber receivers, Charlotte native Hakeem Nicks (Independence High) and Victor Cruz, while Newton and the Carolina offense will try to take care of the ball and attack downfield against the Giants' opportunistic defense.

    New York's NFL-best defensive line will also be chomping at the bit to put the elusive and powerful Newton on the turf as often as possible.

    This one will go down to the wire and may even require extra time on the clock to decide the winner, but in the end, the home team prevails and the Panthers start getting a lot more face time on SportsCenter. 

    Prediction: Panthers 24, Giants 21 (OT)

    Overall Record: 3-0

Week 4: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons

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    Cam Newton had one of the worst  games of his rookie season when he passed for only 237-yards and threw three interceptions in a 31-17 road loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6.

    Bad luck came on a tipped-ball interception at the end of the first half, though a poor decision was to blame for Newton's game-changing second interception on an ill-advised screen pass early in the fourth quarter when the Panthers led 17-14.

    Newton rebounded from his poor Atlanta performance to break a handful of NFL records on the way to Rookie of the Year honors and a roster spot in the Pro Bowl.

    However, Newton only cares about wins and losses and he failed to beat his hometown Falcons in two chances last season.

    2012 is the year that Savannah, Georgia native, Cam Newton, gets his first professional win in the Peach State and the Panthers take the early lead in the NFC South divisional race, improving to four-and-oh.

    Prediction: Falcons 21, Panthers 27

    Overall Record: 4-0

Week 5: Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers

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    Seattle Seahawks' head coach Pete Carroll just may be Cam Newton's biggest fan.

    Carroll raved to a group of reporters about the Panthers' quarterback at the NFL coaches meeting in March, calling Newton an "extraordinarily rare athlete" who will lead the Panthers to success as long as he remains healthy.

    “Look out for those guys. Holy mackerel. If he can just stay out there, they're going to be a fantastic team.” -- Pete Carroll on Newton and the Panthers at the NFC coaches breakfast

    The Seahawks will come to town led by their new quarterback, Matt Flynn, and one of the NFL's toughest running backs in Marshawn Lynch.

    Seattle also had one of the NFL's stingiest defenses last season, giving up just 19.7 point per game and 332.2 total yards per game to rank in the top-ten in both categories.

    The Seahawks had impressive road wins against the eventual Super Bowl 46 champion New York Giants , 36-25, in Week 3 and the Jay Cutler-less Chicago Bears, 38-14, in Week 15, but their only other road victory came against the lowly St. Louis Rams, who they defeated 24-7 in Week 11.

    Seattle should compete for a Wild Card spot as the second-best team in the NFC West behind Super Bowl contending San Francisco 49ers, but the journey across three time zones will make the Seahawks' defense just lethargic enough for the Panthers to pull out the win.

    Prediction: Panthers 34, Seahawks 27

    Overall Record: 5-0

Week 6: Bye-Week

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    Bye-weeks in the NFL are a time for rest, relaxation and recuperation.

    With the Panthers getting off to an unexpected perfect start through five weeks, they will have earned some well deserved R&R&R.

    And because the Panthers are taking a break, I'm going to do the same for this slide, though I will provide you with some entertaining reading material about how the Panthers spent their bye-week in 2011 right here:

    Carolina Panthers Bye-Week Gives Team Chance to Rest, Lick Wounds 

Week 7: Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers

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    Dallas Cowboys fans either love Tony Romo or they hate him and, the last time the Cowboys visited the Carolina Panthers for a Sunday night game in 2006, they fell in love with Romo as he replaced Drew Bledsoe as Dallas' starting quarterback and led the Cowboys to a 35-14 win in Charlotte.

    The following year they hated Romo for dating bad-luck girlfriend, Jessica Simpson, and Panthers fans donned Simpson cut-out masks to further ridicule the Cowboys' quarterback when Dallas came back to the Queen City.

    Romo's personal life is much more settled now that he's married to former beauty queen, Candace Crawford, with whom he recently had a son.

    The fact is Romo is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, at least through the first three quarters of a game, though his team's inability to advance past the divisional round of the NFL playoffs since Michael, Emmitt and Troy strapped on the star-studded helmet for "America's Team" in the 1990s points to the contrary.

    Dallas closed the 2011 season by losing four of its final six games to miss the 2012 NFL playoffs, while the Panthers finished the season strong by winning four of their final six games.

    Romo will leave fans from Dallas, TX to Dallas, NC shaking their heads once again as Cam Newton has a big day against the Cowboys' suspect passing defense and outperforms the Cowboys' starting QB in a Panthers win in front of the home crowd.

    Prediction: Panthers 21, Cowboys 17

    Overall Record: 6-0

Week 8: Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears

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    In a non-divisional scheduling anomaly, the Carolina Panthers will travel to Soldier Field to face Julius Peppers and the Chicago Bears on the road for the second consecutive year.

    Last year's Week Four matchup featured Devin Hester's NFL record-setting 11th career punt return for touchdown and Matt Forte's career-high 205 yards against the Panthers' porous run defense in a 34-29 Bears victory, ruining Panthers' coach Ron Rivera's homecoming.

    Cam Newton paced the Panthers with a game-high 374 passing yards and a touchdown pass to former Bear Greg Olsen.

    Meanwhile, the Bears' QB, Jay Cutler completed only 9-of-17 passes for 102 yards in the final game before Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz finally abandoned the 5-to-7 step drop and incorporated a quicker passing game that had Cutler playing like one of the league's best until he was injured late in the season.

    Mike Martz has since been fired and this game will feature two of the NFL's best QB/WR combos with Cutler reuniting with former Broncos receiver, Brandon Marshall, and with Cam Newton and Steve Smith hooking up again for the Panthers.

    The Bears will press the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions for NFC North supremacy in 2012 and they will have the advantage at Soldier Field as Rivera loses to his former team once again and the Panthers drop their first game of the season.

    Prediction: Chicago 31, Carolina 28

    Overall Record: 6-1

Week 9: Carolina Panthers at Washington Redskins

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    The Carolina Panthers travel to the nation's capitol to face the Washington Redskins in a rematch of the Panthers' 33-20 Week Seven victory in Charlotte last season.

    A year ago, the Redskins visited Charlotte with John Beck starting his first game at quarterback after briefly supplanting Rex Grossman in an experiment that would only last a few weeks.

    The Panthers will likely face another player taking the offensive snaps for Washington as the uber-athletic, Heisman-winning quarterback, Robert Griffin III, is expected to be chosen by the Redskins with the No. 2 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.

    If Redskins wide-receiver Santana Moss is a poor man's Steve Smith, RG3 may be an upper-middleclass man's Cam Newton.

    Griffin will challenge Andrew Luck for 2012 NFL Rookie of the Year honors, but he will be hard pressed to match Newton's record-breaking rookie season or his performance on this day.

    Newton's play will give the Skins' rookie something to look up to as the Panthers win on the road to beat Mike Shanahan's up-and-coming young team.

    Prediction: Redskins 17, Panthers 27

    Overall Record: 7-1

Week 10: Denver Broncos at Carolina Panthers

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    The Denver Broncos won the AFC West and an unforgettable Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the heels, and occasionally the arm, of Tim Tebow's miracle season a year ago.

    Tebow will not be making the trip to Charlotte this year, though, because Denver made a significant upgrade at quarterback in the offseason when John Elway and John Fox brought in future first-ballot hall of famer Peyton Manning to lead the Broncos offense and shipped Tebow off to the New York Jets.

    Fox's Broncos are instant Super Bowl contenders with No. 18 at the helm and their high-powered aerial attack will be on full display in Charlotte.

    Cam Newton will lead the Carolina offense up and down the field between the twenties, but touchdowns will be tough to come by against the Broncos' defense.

    Manning and the Broncos will hand the Panthers their first big loss of the season, but even the best teams play at least two bad games every year. This is one of those games for the Panthers.

    Prediction: Panthers 23, Broncos 35

    Overall Record: 7-2

Week 11: Tampa Bay Bucanneers at Carolina Panthers

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    If there is one thing the Carolina Panthers established in 2011, it is that they owned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    The Carolina Panthers had their second-highest scoring game of all time when they defeated the Bucs, 48-16, at Bank of America Stadium in Week 16.

    Both teams have improved during the offseason, but if Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers are to take the big strides they will need to take as a contender for the 2013 NFL Playoffs, the Bucs are a team they will have to beat twice.

    The Panthers will continue their dominance of the Buccaneers as they bounce back from a shoddy Week 10 performance to beat their NFC rivals by more than two touchdowns.

    Prediction: Panthers 34, Buccaneers 14

    Overall Record: 8-2

Week 12: Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles

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    KICKOFF TIME: 8:30 EST (Monday Night Football)


    The Philadelphia Eagles gave quarterback Mike Vick a six-year contract extension in 2011 and had what many considered to be the Eagles free agency 2011" target="_self" href="">most successful free-agency season in the NFL.

    Backup Eagles quarterback Vince Young labeled the Eagles the "Dream Team" while defensive lineman Jason Babin likened the Eagles to the NFL's version of the Miami Heat, tweeting "except we win the last game."

    The Eagles won their last game of the 2011 season, but it was in the regular season finale against the Washington Redskins since Philadelphia finished with an 8-8 record and failed to make the 2012 NFL playoffs.

    Philly had the players to make a playoff run, they just did not have the team.

    However, just as the Panthers should be several games better than last season in 2012, the Eagles could be the best team in the NFC East this year and they will play like it at home against Carolina.

    Even the NFL's good teams have an off game or two during the regular season, and the Panthers' trip to the not-so-friendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field could shape up to be one of those days.

    Prediction: Eagles 27, Panthers 17

    Overall Record: 8-3

Week 13: Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs

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    In the battle for the nation's best BBQ, the Panthers will travel to America's best smelling professional football venue when they face the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

    Growing up in Virginia and living in Charlotte, I am partial to vinegar-based BBQ as opposed to the sauce-based Kansas City style, though I am sure the fans in dressed in a sea of red will disagree.

    Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassell has been a disappointment since leaving the Patriots in 2009 despite targeting one of the NFL's top receivers in Dwayne Bowe.

    However, a healthy Jamaal Charles who tore his ACL in Week 2 last season should have the Kansas City offense putting up more than 13.2 points per game this season, just not this week.

    In a battle between the high scoring Panthers and the offensively inept Chiefs, Carolina has the advantage and will secure the road victory to guarantee a winning season. 

    However, there is still no verdict on the BBQ challenge.

    Prediction: Chiefs 13, Panthers 31

    Overall Record: 9-3

Week 14: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers led the Atlanta Falcons entering the fourth quarter both times they played in 2011 and they lost both games.

    Cam Newton's poor decision making and timely interceptions cost the Panthers in Atlanta while special teams mistakes and defensive break downs killed Carolina at home.

    The Falcons have one of the NFL's most balanced offenses with Michael Turner in the backfield and Matt Ryan throwing the ball to Roddy White, Julius Jones and Tony Gonzalez.

    While the New Orleans Saints are perennial Super Bowl contenders and the class of the NFC South as long as Drew Brees starts at quarterback, the Falcons are within the Panthers' reach to supplant them as second best in the South.

    Unfortunately for Panthers fans, though, Matty Ice will have a big second-half in Charlotte after Michael Turner sets up the passing game with a dominant first-half performance on the ground, and the Falcons will get revenge for their loss to Carolina earlier in the season.

    Prediction: Panthers 24, Falcons 27

    Overall Record: 9-4

Week 15: Carolina Panthers at San Diego Chargers

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    Before becoming head coach of the Carolina Panthers last season, Ron Rivera was the San Diego Chargers' linebackers coach and defensive coordinator from 2007-2010.

    In 2012, Rivera will take his Panthers on the road to San Diego to face his most recent team, the Chargers.

    San Diego has one of the league's most talented and enigmatic quarterbacks in Philip Rivers who, despite passing for more than 4,000 yards in each of his last four seasons, has led his team to just one playoff victory since 2007.

    Rivers' teams do put up points, though, at least in the regular season, and they will do the same when Carolina comes to town.

    Despite trying their hardest to win one for their coach, the Panthers will be unable to overcome the East Coast-to-West Coast time change as Rivera comes up short in his San Diego homecoming.

    Prediction: Chargers 31, Panthers 24

    Overall Record: 9-5 

Week 16: Oakland Raiders at Carolina Panthers

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    Two of the NFL's best running teams will face off in Bank of America Stadium when the Oakland Raiders come to Charlotte, NC to play the Carolina Panthers.

    The Raiders' are built like an old John Fox team with a physical defense and downhill running game, though they gave up the third most points in the NFL last season with 27.1 points allowed per game.

    Oakland running back Darren McFadden rushed for 1,157 yards in 2010 and averaged over 100-yards per game through six contest in 2011 before a foot injury against the Chiefs in Week 7 shelved Run-DMC for the season.

    When healthy, McFadden is one of the best five running backs in the NFL and the Raiders are a playoff contender.

    If Run-DMC remains healthy up until Week 15, he could surpass his career-high from two years ago before the Raiders ever get to Charlotte.

    The Panthers are no slouch when it comes to running the ball either.

    DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton led the Panthers to the third-best rushing total in the NFL in 2012, and the backfield added some diversity in the offseason with the acquisition of fullback Mike Tolbert from the Chargers.

    The Raiders are tough, but the Panthers are tougher at home as Cam Newton and Steve Smith have a big game against Oakland's road weary defense.

    Prediction: Panthers 41, Raiders 23

    Overall Record: 10-5

Week 17: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

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    When Drew Brees is on fire, there is not much opponents can do to put the fire out.

    Instead, you can only hope to match the Saints score-for-score.

    The Panthers were unsuccessful on both accounts in their season-ending loss to the Saints, 45-17, in New Orleans.

    This year they will try to avoid the same fate with playoff seeds on the line.

    Drew Brees passed for 389 yards and five touchdowns against the Panthers in Week 17 on the way to setting the NFL's all-time single-season passing record with 5,476 yards.  

    Carolina's defense will play tougher in 2012,  but Brees and the Saints will hang a season-high number on the Panthers' D when the NFC South rivals square off in the Big Easy.

    The Saints are still the best in the South and they are nearly impossible to beat in front of their home crowd on the Superdome's turf.

    The Panthers do not pull off the nearly impossible and the Panthers suffer one of their toughest losses of the season.

    Prediction: Saints 37, Panthers 24

    Overall Record: 10-6

    Next Week: Wild-Card game

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