I figured it was the perfect time to unveil my thoughts on their new schedule. Most news outlets see the Panthers as having a favorable schedule based on the opponent's 2020 win percentage. In fact, they are ranked as inheriting the 7th easiest schedule in the league. Hopefully, Rhule and Co. will be able to take advantage of some of the attainable wins. Let's get started!
I want to evaluate the first four-game previews to keep in mind as we assess the next five. In Weeks 1-3, the Panthers prevailed over the Jets, Saints, and the Texans on Thursday night. However, their efforts fell short against Dallas and their high-powered offense. Carolina is sitting pretty at 3-1 as of now.
Week 5: Minnesota Vikings (in Carolina)
The two former LSU receivers face off in a potential trap game. The Panthers have had a mixed bag against the Vikings, keeping it tight in most games. In 2017, Cam Newton led a comeback in the waning seconds, kicking a field goal to secure the win (31-24). In 2020, Joey Slye missed a game-winning kick (28-27). If Sam Darnold plays competently, we should have a good game.
The Vikings simply don't have defenders on the boundary. Jeff Gladney, the team's former 1st round pick, was recently waived after an assault charge. They did add Patrick Peterson but the All-Pro corner isn't in his prime anymore. Cameron Dantzler was a nice surprise for Minnesota down the stretch but he's far from a finished product. The receiving core must capitalize on opportunities.
On the other hand, Phil Snow must be on point in team meetings for this week, emphasizing the importance of the fine details. The defense has to contain three of our league's most explosive players: Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson. Daquan Jones and Derrick Brown need to stay disciplined in their gaps while Burns and Reddick set the edge. Cook is a homerun threat with the ball in his hands. I think their young corners will struggle to slow down our receivers, resulting in one touchdown too many for Zimmer's team.
Prediction: W 28-21
Week 6: New York Giants (in NY)
This is a James Bradberry revenge game. After years of locking down receivers consistently in the NFC South, the Panthers decided against retaining the once-underrated corner. Fast forward to 2021 and Bradberry has finally been recognized as one of the league's premier lockdown defenders after signing a mega-deal with the Giants. Along with offseason-addition Adoree Jackson, the Giants will have a tough task ahead of them facing DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, and Terrace Marshall Jr, who has shown immense promise in training camp so far.
Matt Rhule and Joe Judge both have had limited success in their coaching careers but are building their team up in good culture. In fact, the Giants once pined after Rhule before Tepper snagged him for Carolina. I'm sure Gettleman is very happy with his decision though, as the Giants have made a case to be the best team in the NFC East with their offseason and overall growth from in-house players. It seems to be a win-win situation, as Matt Rhule's team has demonstrated great motor and competitiveness, keeping us in games we had no business winning.
Brian Burns should have a field day against the Giants tackles, assuming Nate Solder and Andrew Thomas are the starters come Week One. Thomas simply hasn't lived up to his draft stock as a former top five pick, struggling throughout his rookie campaign before showing some improvement down the stretch. Solder is a big-money free agent that hasn't lived up to expectations since signing, currently fighting for the right tackle spot with 4th round pick Matthew Peart. Perhaps Haason Reddick will get a few sacks on Sunday, after recording 5 sacks against the team his previous year.
Quarterback Daniel Jones has all the weapons a young passer could ask for. Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, and Kadarius Toney are just the wideouts. They also have Evan Engram and added former Viking Kyle Rudolph at the tight end. The NFL is always better with a healthy Saquon Barkley who has showcased his athleticism in training camp, giving the staff just a preview for what's to come. There are no excuses for Jones this season. None.
Prediction: L 17-14
Week 7: Atlanta Falcons (in Atlanta)
Julio Jones is no longer a Falcon; he won't be terrorizing NFC South defensive backs as often, having joined the Titans in an offseason full of disgruntled superstars being shipped off to their respective teams. Luckily, rookie head coach Arthur Smith has made steps to start replacing Jones, drafting No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts in the first round. They also have former 1st round pick Calvin Ridley who can take the next step, with the potential of a #1 receiver. Ridley is a touchdown machine, having collected 26 touchdowns over the course of 3 years! Panthers' defensive backs should have their hands full for this matchup.
Former Titans DC Dean Pees came out of retirement to coach with his former coaching counterpart in Arthur Smith, who once was an offensive coordinator with him in Tennessee. Atlanta plans on running a 3-4 base defense, that will ideally serve to contain the passing game in a division with lethal receivers. According to training camp and preseason reports, Derrick Brown's former Auburn teammate Marlon Davidson has had a tremendous offseason. But don't forget about 2x Pro-Bowler Grady Jarrett opposite of him. Their defensive line will be key to making CMC one-dimensional.
The Panthers receiving core should capitalize on the weaknesses of the Falcon's led secondary. Led by a patchwork group in Erik Harris and Duron Harmon, the safeties are aging save for a promising rookie in Richie Grant. With the emergence of Terrace Marshall and Shi Smith, Joe Brady should intend to wear out the secondary in the passing game.
Prediction: W 24-13
Week 8: New England Patriots (in Charlotte)
Panthers catch a break here, approaching this game without having to face the wrath of Cam Newton who was just cut unexpectedly by Belichick. Some say that Newton's unvaccinated status could've also played a part in this transaction, as coaches and players are always trying to find a competitive edge, especially in this pandemic. However, Mac Jones has shown deadly accuracy and good pocket movement in the few preseason games we were able to catch of him. It seems McDaniels might've found a better fit for his system.
While New England's defense last year was nothing to scoff about, they were missing some key players that ought to meaningfully contribute this year after opting out of the 2020 season. Dont'a Hightower, the nine year vet, has shown his ability at a variety of roles this season, most recently in the middle. Big-money free agent Matthew Judon should help fill that #1 pass-rushing role while working alongside youngsters at the position in Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings. With their best player Stephon Gilmore placed on the PUP list until Week 7, he may be acclimating back from injury. I expect our receivers, to once again, win their matchups against the Patriots stout secondary. There are simply not enough competent defenders to cover DJ, Robby, Terrace, Shi, CMC, Chuba, Dan, and Tommy.
Jeremy Chinn and the linebackers have to be at their best that afternoon, covering two of the league's top threats at tight end in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. This duo has combined for over 3700 yards receiving and 37 touchdowns. Jaycee, Donte, and AJ should be covering the likes of Jakobi Meyers, N'Keal Harry, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agholor, three of which are very quick wide outs who can make plays in space. Fortunately for Phil Snow, Scott Fitterer has made speed and agility a priority all across the roster.
Prediction: W 21-17
The Panthers have a 6-2 record at this point, getting off to a hot start. However, the second half of this season is when we really learn what kind of team Rhule and Fitterer have assembled. The next few teams on the slate are the Cardinals, Football Team, Dolphins, and a rematch against a division rival in the Falcons. What are your thoughts of their record? What things would you change? Leave your comments below.