Though the Carolina Panthers finished under .500 for a third consecutive year in 2012, a late-season hot streak provides momentum for the team as it heads into 2013. After beginning last season with a dismal 2-8 record, the Panthers suddenly turned a corner after Week 10, winning five of their last six games, including a four-game win streak to close the season.
Making that five wins in a row will be a tough challenge, as the Panthers open their 2013 slate against the Super Bowl-hopeful Seattle Seahawks. The key to the Panthers' success will be their performance in the second half of the season, during which they'll have to battle through an improved NFC South. They don't play their first division game until Week 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but then face division foes in six of the 10 remaining weeks. The Atlanta Falcons return a team largely intact from its 13-3 run in 2012, while the New Orleans Saints could be on the road to bouncing back with head coach Sean Payton returning from his full-season suspension.
|1||Sept. 8||vs. Seattle||1 p.m.||FOX|
|2||Sept. 15||@ Buffalo||1 p.m.||FOX|
|3||Sept. 22||vs. New York Giants||1 p.m.||FOX|
|5||Oct. 6||@ Arizona||4:05 p.m.||FOX|
|6||Oct. 13||@ Minnesota||1 p.m.||FOX|
|7||Oct. 20||vs. St. Louis||1 p.m.||FOX|
|8||Oct. 24||@ Tampa Bay||8:25 p.m.||NFL|
|9||Nov. 3||vs. Atlanta||1 p.m.||FOX|
|10||Nov. 10||@ San Francisco||4:05 p.m.||FOX|
|11||Nov. 18||vs. New England||8:40 p.m.||ESPN|
|12||Nov. 24||@ Miami||1 p.m.||FOX|
|13||Dec. 1||vs. Tampa Bay||1 p.m.||FOX|
|14||Dec. 8||@ New Orleans||1 p.m.||FOX|
|15||Dec. 15||vs. New York Jets||4:05 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 22||vs. New Orleans||1 p.m.||FOX|
|17||Dec. 29||@ Atlanta||1 p.m.||FOX|
Toughest out: Atlanta (home)
Why will the Panthers have a tougher time with the Falcons at home than on the road, you wonder? Because the Panthers' trip to Atlanta comes in Week 17, when -- if things go according to plan for the Dirty Birds -- coach Mike Smith could be resting his starters in preparation for a playoff run. When the Panthers meet them in Charlotte in Week 9, however, Matt Ryan and his dangerous host of receivers will be looking to turn the midseason corner with a division win. The Panthers did take down the Falcons at home in Week 14 last season, so an upset isn't completely outside the realm of possibility.
Must win: Tampa Bay (away)
With the Falcons primed for a big season and the Saints possibly back on track after the return of Sean Payton, any hopes of staying afloat in the NFC South likely rests on the Panthers' two contests with the Buccaneers. The Week 8 matchup in Tampa is particularly crucial, as it precedes a brutal stretch against Atlanta, San Francisco and New England. A loss to the Bucs could start a four-game slide that sinks the Panthers out of playoff contention.
Don't overlook: Jets (home)
Yes, the Jets are teetering on the verge of complete implosion. No, I'm not suggesting they will have some resurgent season under Geno Smith. But despite all of the jokes, the Jets do have some legitimate weapons on their roster, and more importantly, they have desperation. It's likely Rex Ryan could be coaching for his job when these teams meet in Week 15, meaning he'll be heading into Charlotte with an all-or-nothing mindset.
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