Five things to know about the Panthers’ schedule, which was released Thursday night:
1. It won’t be easy.
For the second time in three years, the Panthers have the NFL’s toughest schedule based on opponents’ winning percentage the previous season. Carolina faces six playoffs teams from 2012, including three – New England, Minnesota and San Francisco – that will be coming off a bye week. A three-game stretch in November against the Falcons, 49ers and Patriots could determine Ron Rivera’s future.
2. The division will be decided late.
The Panthers don’t play an NFC South rival until Week 8 at Tampa Bay. Four of their six division games come in December, when they play New Orleans twice in a 15-day span and close the season at Atlanta in Week 17.
3. Panthers get two chances to prove they’re prime-time players.
The Panthers go to Tampa Bay on Thursday night in Week 8, and host New England on Monday night in Week 11. The Panthers were 1-1 in prime time last season, beating Philadelphia and getting blown out by the Giants, who come to Charlotte in Week 3 for the second year in a row.
4. Get ready for the zone read.
Cam Newton vs. Seattle second-year QB and ex-N.C. State standout Russell Wilson in Week 1 in Charlotte. Cam vs. the Niners’ Colin Kaepernick in Week 10 at San Francisco.
5. They caught a break with potential bad/hot weather games.
The Panthers won’t see snow in Buffalo in September, and head to Arizona in October and Miami in November when both places will be cooler.
Date Opponent Last year’s record Last meeting Series history
Sept. 8 Vs. Seattle 11-5 L, 16-12 (10/7/12) 2-3
Carolina will be out for revenge after dropping a four-point contest to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks at home last season.
Sept. 15 At Buffalo 6-10 L, 20-9 (10/25/09) 1-4
The Panthers will avoid the coldest trip of the season by getting the Bills and new coach Doug Marrone in September.
Sept. 22 Vs. NY Giants 9-7 L, 36-7 (9/20/12) 4-4
Want storylines? Gettleman faces former team. Rematch after last year’s primetime beatdown. Hakeem Nicks returns home. There’s plenty.
Sept. 29 BYE
Oct. 6 At Arizona 5-11 L, 28-21 (9/11/11) 8-4
Larry Fitzgerald finally has someone to throw him the ball in Carson Palmer, who will see the guy who ended his 2012 season (DE Greg Hardy) in this meeting.
Oct. 13 At Minnesota 10-6 L, 24-21 (10/30/11) 4-6
Adrian Peterson has already said he’s shooting for the single season rushing record again in 2013. How many yards will he get against Carolina?
Oct. 20 Vs. St. Louis 7-8-1 L, 20-10 (10/31/10) 11-8
The Rams lost running back Stephen Jackson and slot receiver Danny Amendola to free agency this offseason. Sam Bradford may be lacking weapons this year.
Oct. 24 At Tampa Bay 7-9 L, 27-21 (11/18/12) 14-11
Carolina got 10 rushing yards in their last visit to Raymond James Stadium in a dud of a season opener. They return on NFL Network’s Thursday night game.
Nov. 3 Vs. Atlanta 13-3 W, 30-20 (12/9/12) 13-23
The Panthers upset the NFC South champs in their last visit to Bank of America Stadium with a patchwork secondary and a big day from Cam Newton.
Nov. 10 At San Francisco 11-4-1 W, 23-20 (10/24/10) 10-7
The reigning NFC champions will face a team that also runs plenty of zone read. This is also the middle game of a tough three-week stretch for Carolina.
Nov. 18 Vs. New England 12-4 L, 20-10 (12/13/09) 2-3
Tom Brady’s Patriots have been at the top of the AFC for more than a decade and visit Charlotte for Monday Night Football.
Nov. 24 At Miami 7-9 L, 24-17 (11/19/09) 0-4
The Dolphins are the only team the Panthers have never beaten. Last year Miami could only muster 18 points per game.
Dec. 1 Vs. Tampa Bay 7-9 L, 27-21 (11/18/12) 14-11
The Panthers dropped two winnable games against the Bucs last season, including an overtime loss at home.
Dec. 8 At New Orleans 7-9 W, 44-38 (12/30/12) 18-18
Drew Brees passed for 396 yards against the Panthers in the last game but DeAngelo Williams was able to run all over the Saints defense for a career-high 210 yards.
Dec. 15 Vs. NY Jets 6-10 L, 17-6 (11/29/09) 2-3
The Jets bring their circus to Charlotte after the teams met in the 2012 preseason. The Panthers won that game 17-12.
Dec. 22 Vs. New Orleans7-9 W, 44-38 (12/30/12) 18-18
The Saints were struggling to find their identity when the teams met in Charlotte in Week 2 of last season. That shouldn’t be the case this time around.
Dec. 29 At Atlanta 13-3 W, 30-20 (12/9/12) 13-23
Panther fans still shudder at the thought of the last trip to the Georgia Dome when Atlanta went the length of the field in less than a minute to win.