NFL schedule breakdown: Carolina Panthers

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year, is looking to lead the Carolina Panthers' swarming defense back to the playoffs.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Panthers’ supporters are worried enough as it is about whether they’ll have a healthy quarterback and competent wide receivers, so they were probably not anticipating the NFL’s schedule release as much as some.

Even though it’s tough to know which NFL team will complete the inevitable "worst to first" turnaround and which teams will take a bit of a tumble — as has become tradition in this age of parity — there are some games that are going to be difficult no matter the circumstances. And the Panthers were handed plenty of those. But, as with anything, there are things to like about the Panthers’ schedule, too:

1. The non-divisional home schedule: There really aren’t any duds coming to Bank of America Stadium, aside from the Browns in Week 16.

The other four non-division home games are Detroit, Pittsburgh (Sunday Night Football), Chicago and Seattle. Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and the explosive Lions’ offense, the Steelers (because they’re the Steelers), the Bears and the Super Bowl champion Seahawks? Not too shabby. At least there will be storylines.

This will be the third straight season that Seattle has come to Bank of America Stadium, but the Panthers will be looking for their first win over a reigning Super Bowl champ since 2003, when they swept the Buccaneers. This will be the fifth time in the last five seasons the Panthers have hosted the reigning Super Bowl champs.

Considering two of the eight home games are going to be prime-time affairs — the most in one season since 1997 for the Panthers — there should be plenty of NFL-related attention direct toward Charlotte this season. Speaking of which…

2. Prime-time games: The Panthers were flexed into Sunday Night Football once last season — and with the possibility existing this year for NBC to flex games into Sunday night after Week 5, they could be flexed again — but right now, they’re slated for three prime-time appearances. Last year’s team finished with three, including the flexed game, and one was a Thursday night NFL Network tilt.

Two of the Panthers’ prime-time games last year weren’t particularly memorable — a blowout win over Tampa Bay and a blowout loss to New Orleans, which was the Panthers’ only regular-season loss after Oct. 6 — but the exciting win over the Patriots on Monday Night Football certainly was. That was the Panthers’ only prime-time game at home last year..

This season includes three high-profile matchups in primetime, and two at home: the Steelers in Week 3 on Sunday Night Football, the Saints at home in Week 9 for a Thursday night NFL Network game and at Philadelphia in Week 10 for Monday Night Football.

The Panthers, for the most part, had good showings when the spotlight was brightest in 2013. Since the back-to-back prime-time games this season don’t happen until a bit later in the season, that should — in theory — give quarterback Cam Newton (who will be coming off of ankle surgery) and a brand new group of receivers time to get used to one another.

3. A late bye week: The Panthers’ bye week comes in Week 12 this year, the latest bye week in franchise history. Last season, the bye week came in Week 4 — at that point, it seemed like the season had barely begun. Since teams usually use the bye week to heal and rejuvenate, it felt pointless to have one that early.

This year’s comes at the end of a particularly tough stretch when the Panthers might really be in need of a regroup. After the bye, the Panthers are at Minnesota and then three of the four games after that are against NFC South opponents. (The other is against Cleveland, so … almost a bye week?)

It’s worth noting that while the Panthers lost just three more games after last season’s Week 4 bye, one was the week after said bye, a 22-6 loss at Arizona in arguably the Panthers’ worst performance of the season. The fact that the loss came after a bye and dropped the Panthers to 1-3 seemed like a huge cause for concern, until they went on to win 11 of their final 12 regular-season games and grab the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

That should be lesson enough that a bye week is far from a magic wand to be waved over a struggling team to fix all its problems, but in this case, having one so late in the season could definitely help the team that will likely spend most of this season figuring itself out.

1. There’s a brutal seven-game stretch: The Panthers sort of get a chance to ease into the season, opening at Tampa Bay (under first-year head coach Lovie Smith) before hosting Detroit and Pittsburgh, both average teams from a season ago.

Then, things get real. From Week 4 (at Baltimore) until Week 10 (at Philadelphia), the Panthers will play seven games, five of which will be against teams that made the playoffs last year. Three of the four road games will be against teams that made the playoffs: Cincinnati, Green Bay and Philadelphia. The one exception is at Baltimore, a team that barely missed out and just so happens to include former Panther Steve Smith on the roster (but we’ll get to that later).

Even the home games are tough. Chicago just missed the playoffs and then the Super Bowl champs come to town, followed by the Saints. So assuming none of those teams have a huge drop-off from last year — and assuming some of them even get better — the Panthers might be happy to emerge above .500 after that particular stretch.

The worst part of it comes from Oct. 12-30, during which the Panthers play four games, including two straight on the road (Cincinnati, Green Bay) before hosting Seattle and then resting for three days after a hard-hitting affair before the Saints come to town on a Thursday night.

The Panthers have been notoriously slow starters in September especially, but there’s no time for that with this slate. They have to win the games they can before they get into this portion of the season and potentially lose any and all confidence, not to mention any shot at the playoffs.

2. The Minnesota game will be outdoors: The Panthers dodged a bullet with the game at Green Bay being in mid-October instead of December or something, and this looks to be their only significant cold-weather game away from home this year.

As the Vikings finish up work on a new stadium, they will be playing their games outdoors at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, which certainly should be interesting, especially in late November. In case you didn’t know, it gets pretty cold in Minnesota. And it snows a lot.

This game will be played on Nov. 30, and so it will likely be cold. But it’s going to be against a Vikings team that wasn’t very good last year and probably shouldn’t be all that much better this season, and it will be the Panthers’ first game off their Week 12 bye.

3. The Steve Smith Game: A lot of Panthers fans probably found this game on the schedule before any other — Sept. 28, when the Panthers travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens and former Panther wide receiver Steve Smith, the franchise’s heart and soul during his illustrious career.

The team parted ways with Smith about a month ago. It was a move that makes sense from a football standpoint, but it was not executed gracefully, to say the least, and it certainly has not been met with overwhelming approval.

Oh, and it has inflamed the passions of Smith, too.

Smith doesn’t forget. It’s not his style. He takes things personally, which is part of what has made him survive and thrive this long in the NFL as an undersized wide receiver. And Smith is going to make sure the Panthers don’t forget, either, promising that when his former team comes to Baltimore, there would be "blood and guts everywhere."

The Panthers have higher-profile games and more difficult road games, to be sure. But none will have quite the emotional weight of this one, and it will be fascinating to watch the charged-up Smith try to get in the heads of his former teammates.

The Panthers have as many September wins in the last five seasons combined as they did in 2008 alone — three. The team has not started off well lately — in the last two seasons, the Panthers are a combined 5-9 in September and October but 12-2 in November and December.

The Panthers are 8-0 in November in the last two seasons.

The team has made the playoffs just twice in the last six seasons, but that hasn’t stopped them from teasing their fans just enough with a combined 18-7 December record in that span (including a 1-3 December in 2010). "Wait ’til next year" always takes on new meaning when it comes to this team.

Judging by the way the back end of the Panthers’ schedule looks this year, not to mention all the roster turnover, that trend of a strong December could certainly continue. But the Panthers need to have a stronger September than they’ve had recently to have any chance of making a return to the playoffs.

If the Panthers come out of that seven-game stretch with, say, three wins, they should be ecstatic. That leaves the front and back end of the schedule, respectively, and considering how much turnover there has been on the offensive side of the ball (not to mention Newton’s ankle surgery keeping him out for much of OTAs), it’s difficult to imagine a fast start. Record: 8-8