The schedule for the upcoming 2017 NFL season was released Thursday night. Here's how the Carolina Panthers' slate of games shapes up:
Carolina Panthers' 2017 Schedule
Week 1: Away at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, Sept. 10, 4:25 p.m ET)
Week 2: Home vs. Buffalo Bills (Sunday, Sept. 17, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 3: Home vs. New Orleans Saints (Sunday, Sept. 24, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 4: Away at New England Patriots (Sunday, Oct. 1, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 5: Away at Detroit Lions (Sunday, Oct. 8, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 6: Home vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Thursday, Oct. 12, 8:25 p.m. ET)
Week 7: Away at Chicago Bears (Sunday, Oct. 22, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 8: Away at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, Oct. 29, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 9: Home vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, Nov. 5, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 10: Home vs. Miami Dolphins (Monday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m. ET)
Week 11: BYE WEEK
Week 12: Away at New York Jets (Sunday, Nov. 26, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 13: Away at New Orleans Saints (Sunday, Dec. 3, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 14: Home vs. Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, Dec. 10, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 15: Home vs. Green Bay Packers (Sunday, Dec. 17, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 16: Home vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, Dec. 24, 1 p.m. ET)
Week 17: Away at Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, Dec. 31, 1 p.m. ET)
The Panthers are hoping to leave their 6-10 record from last season behind and return to postseason contention. With a schedule that slates them to play against the AFC East and the NFC North, there is some potential to do exactly that. Carolina has the 16th most difficult slate of games in the league according to strength of schedule metrics. This is an improvement from last season, when they owned the 12th most difficult schedule. Their opponents for the upcoming season had a combined record that reached just above .500 last year (129-127).
Though beginning the season on the road might not be ideal, an opening matchup against the rebuilding 49ers certainly is. It gives Carolina a much easier opportunity to begin their season 1-0 than they had last year against the Denver Broncos. Followed by that game is the home opener against Buffalo, which is also an advantageous matchup. The Panthers play well when they are at home, and it will be the first game against former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott as he begins his head coaching career with the Bills. It's likely that Carolina will be favored in that game too, which could help the Panthers get off to a strong start and avoid falling back into a 1-5 hole like last year.
The opposing divisions slated for the NFC South to play in 2017 also provide some more favorable games than last year, when the Panthers had to play the NFC West and AFC West. Instead of difficult defensive matchups against the Broncos, the Oakland Raiders, or the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina will face more teams not known for their defensive strength. Games against the Dolphins or the Lions will be difficult, but their defenses are not as accomplished as the opponents of 2016.
Besides the 49ers, Carolina will face other lineups facing rebuilding seasons too, like the Jets and Bears. Playing these teams who struggled in their respective divisions last year may provide the Panthers with opportunities to bolster their record to compete for the NFC South title.
There are some difficult matchups scheduled too that balance out these games against teams likely to struggle in 2017. The New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers are teams no one has expected to struggle in the last ten years, and those games (particularly the Green Bay matchup in Charlotte) could have major playoff implications for the Panthers come December.
Stronger Year for the South?
Many of Carolina's woes last season came in division games, with the Panthers holding a poor 1-5 record against NFC South opponents. The team will need to fix those divisional problems this year, because it appears that most of the harder games on the schedule will also be within the division.
Though it was not the case just a few years ago, it seems the rest of the NFC South has become very competitive for a spot in the playoffs. The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a trip to the Super Bowl after a dominant 2016 campaign. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just added speed-demon Desean Jackson to their wide receiver corps, and quarterback Jameis Winston continues to improve. The New Orleans Saints still have future hall-of-famer Drew Brees and emerging star receivers Michael Thomas and Willie Snead.
If the Panthers can stay healthy, they likely have the talent to heavily compete for the top of the division, but the rest of the NFC South has caught up since the time Carolina won three straight division titles. It has quickly become a challenging group of teams again.
The next step in the Carolina Panthers' offseason is the NFL Draft, which begins on April 27. Players will report for the first round of OTA offseason workouts on May 23.