Week 1, at Tampa Bay, Sept. 7, 4:25 p.m.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera worried if his team got enough hot practices with an unusually cool training camp in Spartanburg. The last time the Panthers opened at Tampa Bay they floundered for 10 rushing yards in a 16-10 loss. This year, the Bucs have a new coach in Lovie Smith, someone Rivera is quite familiar with after being an assistant on Smith’s staff in Chicago. A tone-setting win is important for the Panthers and Rivera, who is 0-3 on opening day as a head coach.
Week 2, vs. Detroit, Sept. 14, 1 p.m.
The secondary will get a taste of playing against big receivers in Tampa Bay, but nothing can prepare a team for Megatron. Calvin Johnson is the game’s best receiver, and even if Carolina rolls coverage to him, Matthew Stafford still has rookie tight end Eric Ebron to throw to. Carolina’s offensive line will have to protect Cam Newton and his ribs from Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in back-to-back weeks.
Week 3, vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 21, 8:30 p.m.
In the first prime-time game of the season, the Panthers face the Steelers on Sunday Night Football in a match between two of the biggest quarterbacks in the league in Newton and Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers’ defense is aging, but it remains effective under ageless defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. They injected some fresh legs into the secondary this offseason with former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell.
Week 4, at Baltimore, Sept. 28, 1 p.m.
Imagine if this game were in Charlotte instead of Baltimore. How many Steve Smith jerseys, both for the Ravens and Panthers, would we see in the stands? How split would the cheers be? How torn would fans be? Smith promised blood and guts everywhere when he played the Panthers, and there’s no doubt there will be plenty of goggles in M&T Bank Stadium that Sunday. At 35, Smith has shown during the preseason he still can make a clutch grab over the middle. He’s bent on proving to Panthers brass that they made the wrong decision, no matter how much it had to do with off the field more than on.
Week 5, vs. Chicago, Oct. 5, 1 p.m.
The Bears could be good, or they could be average. One of the biggest questions among NFL teams, Chicago returns Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery while still trying to figure out what its defense is after years of dominance on that side of the ball. Cutler, who has had his share of bangs and bumps during recent years, is one injury away from giving fans a Newton vs. Jimmy Clausen match after Clausen won the Bears’ backup job.
Week 6, at Cincinnati, Oct. 12, 1 p.m.
The Bengals are one of the top AFC teams entering the season, and they just gave quarterback Andy Dalton a six-year, $96 million contract that could look similar to what the Panthers end up giving Newton. Cincinnati’s defense is formidable with defensive tackle Geno Atkins and linebacker Vonaez Burfict. The Bengals have what it takes to make it back to the playoffs, but it’s January that’s the problem for Dalton.
Week 7, at Green Bay, Oct. 19, 1 p.m.
Carolina lucked out by not getting Green Bay in December, but Lambeau Field still is one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will host the Panthers for the start of a tough 12-day stretch against three 2013 playoff teams for Carolina. Despite his age, Julius Peppers still is getting it done at his third NFL team, and it’s always a story when the former Panthers Pro Bowler plays Carolina.
Week 8, vs. Seattle, Oct. 26, 1 p.m.
That this game between the Super Bowl champs and NFC South winners didn’t get some prime-time slot was somewhat surprising. Carolina and Seattle have played in Charlotte each of the past two seasons, and each game has been won by the Seahawks by one score. No doubt Richard Sherman, the game’s top corner, will be on Panthers No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Carolina defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson must be extra diligent about keeping quarterback Russell Wilson contained in the pocket and make him throw over the line rather than getting in space and finding passing lanes.
Week 9, vs. New Orleans, Oct. 30, 8:25 p.m.
This week could be one of the best in recent Charlotte sports history. The city’s NBA franchise debuts its new iteration of the Hornets at home against Milwaukee on Oct. 29, and the Panthers host division rival New Orleans the following night on national television. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a master of releasing the ball quickly, so it’s imperative Carolina’s front four get pressure on the quarterback early and disrupt a potent New Orleans offense. Carolina has beaten the Saints each of the past two seasons when they met at Bank of America Stadium.
Week 10, at Philadelphia, Nov. 10, 8:30 p.m.
The final scheduled prime-time game of the season, the Panthers travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles. Carolina struggled mightily with Philadelphia’s tempo under coach Chip Kelly during the 2013 preseason, but Panthers coaches will have more than a year and a half of tape on the Eagles by the time they meet again. Will Nick Foles replicate last season’s incredible 27 touchdown-two interception season? Will LeSean McCoy be the elite running back who can expose Carolina’s vaunted front seven? “Monday Night Football” awaits.
Week 11, vs. Atlanta, Nov. 16, 1 p.m.
The Falcons have looked awful during the preseason based on the first four weeks of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” though it’s unconscionable the Falcons would repeat last year’s 4-12 season with a healthy Julio Jones. There’s certainly no love lost between the two teams, and the thought of the trash talk that week has reporters across Charlotte salivating. Carolina’s defensive backs will have their hands full with Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas.
Week 12, bye
This is the latest bye the Panthers have had under Rivera (the previous was Week 9 in 2011). Every team says the bye comes at a good time, but it’s likely teams prefer a break closer to midseason than early in the season, as has been the case the past two years.
Week 13, at Minnesota, Nov. 30, 1 p.m.
Carolina will play 14 games outdoors this season, and in an odd twist, this is one of them. The Vikings have been displaced to the University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium while their dome is built, so that means the Panthers will get a chilly contest against the Vikings after Thanksgiving. If there’s snow, both teams will rely heavily on their running game, and there are only a handful of running backs in NFL history better than Adrian Peterson. Carolina’s defensive tackle rotation will have to be at its best in this one.
Week 14, at New Orleans, Dec. 7, 1 p.m.
This usually is the toughest divisional road game for the Panthers. Carolina has won at the Superdome just once since 2009, and these teams hope by Week 14 that they’ll be jockeying for playoff position. Carolina’s coaches will pump in the crowd noise at the practice field the week leading up to this game to acclimate the players to the second-loudest stadium in the NFL. Luke Kuechly and/or Thomas Davis on Jimmy Graham always is interesting to watch.
Week 15, vs. Tampa Bay, Dec. 14, 1 p.m.
By this time, the Panthers’ secondary should have enough experience with big-bodied receivers to be ready for the likes of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. But who will throw to them? The Bucs will start the season with veteran Josh McCown but have former N.C. State standout Mike Glennon on the bench. Few are convinced McCown can lead this team to the playoffs.
Week 16, vs. Cleveland, Dec. 21, 1 p.m.
For much of the past 15 years, a late-season game against Cleveland would mean a half-empty stadium and low TV ratings. But the preseason has shown that plenty of eyes are on the Browns after they drafted Johnny Manziel. Coach Mike Pettine made the only call he could in naming Brian Hoyer the starting quarterback, but how will he be able to ignore the calls of thousands screaming for Manziel after each Hoyer interception. This will be the second time Newton has played a Heisman Trophy winner who was awarded the trophy after he won it in 2010 (Robert Griffin III and Washington in 2012 being the first). They grow up so quickly.
Week 17, at Atlanta, Dec. 28, 1 p.m.
For a second straight year the regular season ends down Interstate 85. Will this game be as pivotal as it was last year? In 2013, the Panthers clinched the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs with a win against the Falcons, and no doubt if both teams are in the playoff hunt, this finale will settle some seeding issues. All games are created equal, but the fate of the Panthers’ playoff hopes could ride on this one.