Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 4/18/12

One of the biggest surprises in 2011 was the way the Carolina Panthers improved vastly over the previous season.  Certainly adding Rookie of the Year quarterback Cam Newton was the catalyst the team needed.  So many observers thought it was a stretch to pick Newton first in the draft, but his poise, arm strength, running ability and leadership qualities came through time and time again.  This season, the Panthers will catch no team by surprise.

Here is a crystal ball view of the season:

NFL Rookie of the Year, Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton, said he has really improved in the off-season.

Week 1: @ Tampa Bay – I believe Carolina will come out of the gate very fast this season, and by going on the road to a weak division opponent, the Panthers can start the season off 1-0.  Tampa really dropped off the map last season costing former coach Raheem Morris his job.  New coach Greg Schiano (formerly of Rutgers) is a stickler for details (“Football is about details and it starts here.  Toes on the edge (of the line), toes on the edge,” the coach yelled at the first minicamp on April 17.)  Really…Carolina has too much firepower and this is a very winnable game. (Panthers record: 1-0)

Week 2: New Orleans - Another divisional game to start the season, and this is one fans in Charlotte will be up for…the Saints come into Bank of America Stadium with a lot to prove…and the Panthers should give them a great game.  Look for Cam Newton to throw downfield a lot in this one.  The Saints are vulnerable to long passes, and with the second-year quarterback making enormous strides in his overall game, again, this could be a win for the home team. (2-0)

Week 3: New York Giants – A Thursday Night nationally-televised game against the defending Super Bowl champs will have the home crowd in a frenzy.  While the Giants have been notoriously slow starters, they will be coming off a home game against Tampa Bay, and should be at least 1-1 if not more realistically 2-0 coming into Charlotte.  The Panthers could have the same record.  My guess, this will be Carolina’s first loss of the season…but the X-Factor, Newton, always makes the Panthers a threat to win any game. (2-1)

Week 4: @ Atlanta – Another divisional game and this one is definitely winnable for the Panthers.  Yes, the Falcons have Matt Ryan and they are a very good team, but if Carolina is going to step up and challenge New Orleans for the NFC South title, this is a statement game.  Cam Newton gets some help in this one and the Panthers defense swarms all over Matty Ice as Carolina upsets the favored Falcons in the Georgia Dome. (3-1)

Week 5: Seattle – The Seahawks travel all the way across the country and do get a break with a 4:05 p.m. kickoff time, but factor in the previous week’s game (at St. Louis) and all that travel could be a factor.  My guess is the Seahawks will NOT travel back to the Northwest after playing the Rams, but will rather stay somewhere in the Carolinas for a week.  If that is the case, the Seahawks will have been away from home and their home training facilities for a long time.  It just sets up well for the Panthers. (4-1)

Week 6: BYE WEEK – Downtime for the players and a chance to get rested up for the next 11 weeks of action.

Steve Smith is one of the premier receivers in the NFL and a favorite target for Cam Newton

Week 7: Dallas – The Cowboys will be coming off a very physical game at Baltimore in Week 6 and could indeed be very banged up.  Tony Romo is definitely a good quarterback who can cause trouble for the Panthers, but again, in my optimistic opinion, the defense will rise to the occasion at home and swarm all over him.  Ron Rivera’s scheme will cause enough trouble for the Boys, and the Panthers move to 5-1 with a huge win.

Week 8: @Chicago – Normally, this would not be a game I would think the Panthers would win coming off an emotional win over Dallas the week before, but the Bears are coming off a short week, having played on Monday night against the Lions (who will rout them, and possibly be pretty physical).  If the Panthers play their kind of game (wide-open offense), the Bears will have a lot of problems.  I see Carolina moving to 6-1, which surprises everyone.

Week 9: @Washington – For the first time all year, I see a contest matching two of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the league…Cam Newton vs. Robert Griffin III (yes, I think RG3 will be drafted by the Redskins)…and this should be a shoot-out.  Normally, I like the Panthers in these kinds of games, but this one, at FedEx Field, is a trap game.  It will be RG3′s coming-out game and the Panthers lose, moving to 6-2 on the season.

Week 10: Denver – Last week the Panthers prepared for a mobile quarterback with great arm strength…this time, they prepare for Peyton Manning…and former Panthers head coach John Fox.   Basing this on the fact that I believe he will still be healthy at this point of the season, the Panthers are in for a chess-match.  Denver had its bye week in Week 7, so they should be rejuvenated.  Good thing for them since their first five of seven games are against 2011 playoff teams (the other two are AFC West rivals san Diego and Oakland…hardly a cake-walk).  Their second half of the schedule features only Baltimore (as a 2011 playoff team).  The Broncos are thinking this is a game they should win.  Coach Fox knows better and will really prepare his team to take advantage of every defensive mistake the Panther make.  Peyton Manning will be the difference-maker in this one, Panthers fans…sorry.  Carolina drops its third of the season and moves to 6-3.

Week 11: Tampa Bay – Ten weeks have passed since Carolina beat the Bucs in Florida…and they do so again.  While it was probably around 90 degrees and humid down in Tampa in Week 1, Nov. 18 in Charlotte can be beautiful – 65 degrees, blue skies – perfect for Cam and the boys to break their two-game slide and move to 7-3.  More importantly…they move to 4-0 in the division!

Week 12:  @ Philadelphia – Monday Night Football…Monday after Thanksgiving weekend and all eyes will be on the two most exciting quarterbacks going…Cam vs. Michael Vick.  This will be another shoot-out, and, because it is being played at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia, I favor the Eagles who will really need this one to stay close to New York and Dallas.  Panthers slip to 7-4 on the season.

Week 13: @Kansas City – This one has trap written all over it.  The Chiefs are a better football team than they appear to be.  While they don’t have the firepower offensively to match-up with the Panthers, defensively they can be dominate.  This is a 50/50 game for me, so I will give the Panthers the road victory as I trust Cam Newton late in the game.  Nearly two seasons into his career, by now, I hope he has learned how to manage the clock and not make dangerous throws.  If so, Carolina comes out of the Midwest with a very big win and moves to 8-4.

Week 14: Atlanta – The Dirty Birds are coming off a long week, as I will call it.  In Week 13, they host New Orleans on Thursday Night (Nov. 29)…then come to Charlotte for the 1:00 p.m. start on Dec. 9.  That’s ten days to get healthy and really prepare for Cam Newton and Company.  I think the Panthers split the season series with Atlanta as the Falcons come away with the victory based on learning from their loss to Carolina in Week 4 in the Georgia Dome.  Panthers are now 8-5 and 4-1 in the division.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera returns to San Diego for a late-season game

Week 15: @San Diego – The Panthers, with the exception of playing Tampa Bay, have not had an easy game since , well, their opener against Tampa…and it starts to get to them.  Travelling across the country to play a late-afternoon game in San Diego would get anyone’s attention.  And, on top of that, it is Panthers Coach Ron Rivera‘s homecoming.  The weather will be wonderful, but the Chargers are a great December team.  This one goes to the home team as Carolina falls to a very respectable 8-6 on the season.

Week 16: Oakland – The Raiders will no doubt be a different team in 2012, but will be coming off their rivalry-game against Kansas City.  It will be physical as these two teams really do not like each other.  Then there’s the travelling cross-country thing again.  The Panthers will have licked their wounds following their loss at San Diego and will be gearing up for next week’s huge game at New Orleans…but this one is winnable and they do it.  9-6 on the season and ready for next week’s big game.

Week 17: @ New Orleans – The Mercedes-Benz Louisiana Superdome will be rocking as Carolina gets set to play the biggest game of the season.  By this time, everyone will know how the Saints have fared without their coach and key players.  Everyone, except for Coach Sean Payton, will be ready for this one.  They would like nothing better than to beat Carolina and head into the playoffs on a roll.  They will have played the Giants and Cowboys (and Tampa) over the past three weeks, so the Saints will be ready for the Panthers.  If the game was in Charlotte, I’d pick the Panthers.  But Drew Brees will come through and the Panthers end up 9-7 on the season and 4-2 in the division.

To compete…and even think about making the playoffs in 2012, the Panthers will have to really improve their defense.  Going against such outstanding quarterbacks – Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons), Eli Manning (New York Giants), Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints), Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys), Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins), Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos), Michael Vick (Philadelphia Eagles) and Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers) – will really test them.

Overall, I don’t think 9-7 will make the playoffs, but no one is expecting to at this time.  Remember, it’s only April 18, and the draft has not taken place…training camp is in the far distant future…so crystal balling the season is tough.  I think 9-7 is realistic for the Panthers as long as they keep their focus and win the games they should win…an upset or two gets them to 9 or 10 wins in 2012…and builds great hope for a playoff run in 2013.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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