Greetings all! First of all, I'd like to thank the entire CSR community for what we all are able to enjoy here. This site has provided me with knowledge, entertainment, and sustains my appetite for all things Panthers throughout the year. Special thanks goes out to the editors and frequent contributors, and to all of you who have at one time or another made me laugh out loud with your comments.
After spending an eternity on the sidelines, I though I'd take a shot at sharing my opinions now that the 2012 schedule has been released and all of the hysteria has had overnight to cool. I especially want to share my impressions of the way the season has now shaped up for the Panthers. While it has been known for some time who the opponents will be for 2012, I think it's interesting to take a break from all the rosterbation here and pay more attention to the ebb and flow of the schedule and what this could mean for Carolina and the rest of the division.
We as fans have been subjected to what I think has been a textbook definition of a roller coaster ride for what I think is the last 7 seasons. Going all the way back to 2005, when the Panthers managed to make the playoffs and advance to the NFC title game with smoke and mirrors, the injury plagued 2006, the playoff disappointment of 2008, the meltdown of Jake Delhomme in 2009, the rock-bottom lows of 2010, followed by the ascension of the franchise with the arrival of Cam Newton in 2011.
Entering 2012, there's a palpable change in attitude and atmosphere in Charlotte. Players WANT to be a part of what's building here, from Steve Smith extending his contract, Greg Olsen restructuring his deal to help with the cap, to Mike Tolbert taking a million dollars less to simply be close to home. We've seen and heard team leaders talk about building something special, how the time is now, and saying things like the house is on fire. The urgency being displayed and the commitment to the organization and the plan is evident throughout the organization from top to bottom.
As part of my "analysis", I'll break the schedule down into 4 quarters, as many have done in the past. I'll look at the games individually, then as a 4 game split, and explain why I think that Carolina's fate this season can, for better or for worse, can be essentially sealed by week 9. Details after the jump..
Some initial thoughts about the schedule. While prime time games are nice, I don't really get too caught up in that. A lot of people scream about "disrespect" and point to prime time games as some sort of validation of a team's stature within league circles. Who really cares? Prime time games are more about market size and advertising dollars anyway, so that works against Charlotte in general. Why else would the Bears, who finished third in their division, get 5 of these "coveted" prime time games? And don't get me started about the Cowboys.
What I think are the most important aspects of the schedule are:
- Ratio of conference games to non-conference games in the first half of the year.
- When you meet your division foes.
- How the travel versus home schedule breaks down.
When the bye comes is also important, but not as important as those three variables IMO. The importance of division games is obvious for playoff qualifications, and the conference games are essentially equally important for the same reason.
Let's look at the first quarter of the schedule.
Week 1: At Tampa Bay.
Week 2: New Orleans
Week 3: New York Giants
Week 4: At Atlanta
Worth noting is that by October 1, Carolina will have played four games, three against division teams and the fourth against a conference team. There's an even split between home and away games, and no travel outside of the southeastern US is required. While home field is nice to have anytime, not having a long distance to travel also helps. If the Cats get out of the gates and manage to win 3 of these 4 games, they'll have a huge leg up on the rest of the division. All of the other division teams have only one game against a division foe when they play against Carolina in the first quarter of the year, and only Tampa has four conference games like Carolina does. New Orleans and Atlanta both have three of their four games against the AFC. Getting out of the gate fast would provide a serious head start on playoff positioning for Carolina. Failing to do so makes the road to the playoffs much longer and the mountain much steeper. Winning the first quarter is a must for Carolina in my opinion. If they manage to go 4-0, we'll be looking down at the rest of the conference.
Now, on to the second quarter.
Week 5: Seattle
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Dallas
Week 8: At Chicago
Week 9: At Washington
Here's another group of games that include 4 conference teams. None of them are division games and two of the four are on the road, so here's another 50-50 split of travel. Again, none of these are "long" trips, so I don't think that will be a huge factor. I think this is where the Panthers either make it or break it in terms of seriously contending for a playoff spot. The magnitude of the four games is inversely proportional to how the team fares in the first quarter of the season. Win 3 of the first 4 or better, and these games can be played at .500 and not hurt too badly. However, a slow start could make each and every one of these 4 games crucial. Winning in Chicago is no easy feat, and RG III should have his legs under him in Washington by Week 9. Not a fun proposition. Coming out of the first 8 games with a 6-2 mark, or even 5-3, with all of the games being conference games, could really set the stage for the second half and place the Panthers squarely in the hunt.. Below .500 would essentially spell the end of any serious chances at a playoff spot, as this record would also be exactly the same for in-conference games.
On to the third quarter.
Week 10: Denver
Week 11: Tampa
Week 12: At Philadelphia
Week 13: At Kansas City
Once again, there's two road games and two home games. None of the road games are long travel times, and for the first time there's the AFC element added. We wrap up the season series against Tampa, and this is a game that I'm very happy will be in Charlotte. Something tells me that Tampa will be a much tougher venue as the season progresses, and I think it's a HUGE break to open against them in their house. I'd rather get them early than late. This quarter also includes Fox's return with Manning in tow and sets up an interesting story line for the Old Guard QB taking on the New Era QB. Tough game for sure. Two consecutive weeks on the road in tough venues closes out the quarter with the trip to Kansas City coming on a short week. A challenging quarter to be sure, but the appearance of two AFC teams helps soften the blow of losing 2 of the games. If Carolina has gotten out fast, then this quarter could be where they can split the four games and still maintain a firm grip on the playoff chase. Coming into this quarter at .500 would mean having to win three of four against much better teams than in years past. Not an ideal scenario by any stretch.
Finally, the fourth quarter.
Week 14: Atlanta
Week 15: At San Diego
Week 16: Oakland
Week 17: At New Orleans
Again, two of the four are on the road, and two of the four are against divisional foes. There's along trip to San Diego that comes right after a division game at home. East to West games haven't really been too much of an issue historically with the Panthers, but going to San Diego in December could be a game with a lot on the line for both teams. These games could all be huge considering it's December in the NFL, but I truly think that if Carolina is waiting until then to make their push to the playoffs they're in a lot of trouble. I'm hopeful that the New Orleans game is meaningless for Carolina and that they're already secured their spot in the playoffs. While I think everyone will remember the Week 17 game of 2011, nothing would be sweeter than to go in to the Super Dome and be able to play loose and protect your key players. On the other hand, the next sweetest thing would be to have Carolina and New Orleans having everything to play for, and then have the Panthers annihilate the Saints. I'm just sayin'. As for the other division team schedules, they ALL have 4 conference games to finish out the schedule. Carolina will have run that gauntlet early, which I think could be a huge advantage.
All in all, the first half is where the rubber meets the road for the entire year. Here's the biggest story of the first 8 games - no other NFC team plays it's first 8 games all in conference except Carolina. Let that sink in for a minute. Play well and win, and the team WILL be in the driver's seat. Failure to do so will leave them with huge obstacles to reaching the post season.
As a fan of the game, I think the schedule makers did Carolina a huge favor by starting them off with 8 conference games and 10 of their first 11. As a Panthers fan, I really think we'll know by Halloween what the real chances of post season look like. I threw in a poll to see what the community thinks.
Here's to a great 2012, and thanks for reading!