Greetings to the CSR community! As we all know, the 2013 schedule was released a few days ago. It's yet another season of playing the toughest schedule based on W-L records of opponents the year before. Of course, as in years past, the schedule release causes a flurry of chatter about the upcoming year with many opinions and predictions being circulated. I'd like to follow my post from last season and provide a quarter by quarter breakdown of the schedule and to point out how different this year's slate of games shapes the 2013 season, especially when compared to the early season gauntlet of division and conference games in the first 9 weeks that the Panthers had to endure in 2012. This year, I think that the Panthers can stumble early and recover down the stretch, but it's also entirely possible to get out fast and have it all fall apart in December.
Breaking the season into four 4-game quarters is the approach I'll use, and I still believe the three most important factors to consider 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.
We all know that when the bye comes can have it's own influence and can be seen as a positive when it comes mid to late season, and being too early could be seen as a negative. I'm not a subscriber to the bye being anything else than what it is - an off week. Considering that the bye for this team couldn't come soon enough the last 2 years and give the staff and team a chance to regroup, I think that a Week 4 bye is more of a blessing than a curse to a young team like Carolina.
Now - on to the schedule. In the first quarter:
Week 1: Seattle
Week 2: At Buffalo
Week 3: New York Giants
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: At Arizona
The first stanza has two road games and two home games, and includes a trip out west to close out the quarter. And - FINALLY - a home opener! There are three conference games, and includes home games against the play-off making Seahawks and the winning season but missed the playoffs Giants. While home field hasn't been anything that Carolina has leveraged in recent years, it sure beats playing two good teams in three weeks on the road. Thrown in is an AFC tilt in Buffalo, but by it coming in September rather than December is a HUGE plus. The first quarter includes the first of two long west-coast trips, but at least it comes after a bye. The three conference games are more important in determining a team's playoff positioning, and I truly think that two of these three games can go either way.
Getting started fast will be something that we all watch after seeing the team come out and lose early and often, most of the time in heart wrenching style. And I think we can all give a hat-tip to the rematch/revenge angle with regard to the Seahawks and Giants. The beauty of no division games in the first quarter means that losses won't count as double-hits against playoff positioning, but the wins won't help twice as much either. I think that the team would benefit more than the record would show if they can come out oft his quarter at 2-2, but even a 1-3 start wouldn't carry the same penalty as last year due to the back loading of division games in quarters 3 and 4.
The second quarter:
Week 6: At Minnesota
Week 7: St. Louis
Week 8: At Tampa Bay (Thursday night game)
Week 9: Atlanta
Here's where the jockeying for positioning really starts. The slate includes four conference games and two division games, with a balance of home and away. None of the travel is lengthy, but the schedule makers didn't do Carolina any favors by scheduling their only back-to-back trip on the year to follow a trip out west. Minnesota will be tough, and playing there make it even tougher as AP on turf is like AP squared or something. It also comes after THEIR bye, which seems to be a common thread Carolina will endure this year. The Panthers return home after what is really a three week hiatus from The Vault (including the bye), and sets up an important "welcome home" game against a conference team that should be much improved in the Rams. The quarter concludes with the first two division games, with one on the road in Tampa and the other at home against the Falcons. Thursday night games are always a short week, but if you're gonna have a short week, I think having it fall against a division team you see twice a years is the best you can hope for in terms of preparation. And having along week before traveling to ATL is a HUGE bonus IMO.
Momentum, be it good or bad, will carry over from the first quarter into the second. If the Cats get out fast and win against conference opponents, this quarter can be played week to week without much angst. If the Cats get out slow, these four games will be important in turning around a season that will have started the same way three years in a row - and I don't think the team can overcome another series of crushing defeats to rebound against this set of opponents. On the more positive side, even exiting the first half of the season below .500 can be erased in the second half as the red meat of the schedule is yet to come. I think it would have been preferred to get Tampa in Charlotte and Atlanta on the road here top flip the rematch venues later in the year, but as the saying goes - it is what it is.
I think that the fan base (and the team) has to be able to endure ups and downs in the first half of the season, as the final 8 weeks hold everything for Carolina.
On to the third quarter:
Week 10: At San Francisco
Week 11: New England (Monday Night Football)
Week 12: At Miami
Week 13: Tampa Bay
HOLY SHEEP DIP BATMAN!!! All of the sudden, things get very serious. The first two games, when combined with the trip to ATL in the final week of the previous quarter, means the Panthers will face three of the four Conference Championship Game participants back to back to back. A long road trip to the defending NFC champs (who are coming off of their bye), then hosting Brady and Company on a Monday nighter (ALSO coming off of their bye), then on to Miami to face a vastly improved Dolphins squad on a short week, followed by a division game at home with a rematch against Tampa. This quarter is where everything will be revealed for Carolina's playoff chances, and will ultimately give us all a really good feel of where the team stacks up.
It's way to early to predict performances against anyone, and trying to gauge how the team will fare against a set of formidable opponents three weeks in a row is an exercise in futility. I don't think the fact that the 49ers and the Patriots both face Carolina after coming off of their bye weeks can be dismissed. Giving Belechick and Harbaugh two weeks to prepare for us makes the difficult task even more so. A bright spot in this set of games is that if you're going to have to play in Miami, I think it's better to play in November than it is in September.
In my opinion, this is where the team will get its true measure regardless of the record coming in. We'll have a very good idea of whether we're looking at real gold or fool's gold by Thanksgiving. When compared to last year's schedule, we essentially all knew it was over for the team's playoff chances by Halloween.
On to the final quarter.
Week 14: At New Orleans
Week 15: New York Jets
Week 16: New Orleans
Week 17: At Atlanta
ANOTHER loaded quarter. This quarter includes three division games against the two teams that have held the division power for what feels like forever. Getting the Saints twice in 15 days is brutal, and having to close the season in the Georgia Dome is as tough as it gets in the NFCS right now. The Jets game is the only "low penalty" game if it's a loss, but that's only when comparing the magnitude of importance of the other three games. When combined with the previous quarter's games, these final eight games include three teams that went deep into the playoffs along with 4 divisional opponents in 5 weeks. Brutal.
I guess the best part of the schedule is that the final quarter can provide the team with a chance to push like crazy and atone for missteps earlier in the year and break through into the playoffs for the first time in Rivera's tenure. Of course, the opposite is true as well - peaking too early and losing games down the stretch could result in the fan base having to endure the slow and agonizing demise of what was a promising season.
So there you have it. All in all, I think that the schedule provides a completely different makeup to this season, especially when contrasted with last season's schedule. I think the schedule fits the way the team has played in the last 2 years than much better last year's schedule - by far. The team was under enormous pressure in 2012 to win and win early. I personally believe the loss to ATL last year in Week 4 was a blow to the team's confidence that they weren't able to put behind them until after the bye. Unfortunately, the writing was on the wall by then.
In 2013, I think the Panthers will have a true benefit in that the early season games don't hold the same potential for falling way behind in the playoff race with no path to recovering from a slow start due to the heavy dose of division games in the last 5 weeks. I have no idea of how any of this will play out, but I look forward to a season that won't be over until December.