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Panthers need successful opening act

Posted Sep 7, 2012

NFL teams that don’t make the playoffs but finish the season strong are more likely to make the playoffs the next year.

The Panthers certainly fit that profile after winning four of their final six games in 2011.

“But this is a brand-new season,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. “Whatever was done in the past is in the past. We’re focused on the future.”

For the Panthers, the future is now.

Carolina opens its season Sunday at NFC South foe Tampa Bay. Common sense says it’s essential that the Panthers come home from Florida with a victory in hand, and some interesting statistics indicate the same thing.

Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule, 52.7 percent of teams that won their season opener went on to make the playoffs. Just 23.6 percent of opening-game losers landed in the playoffs.

In the Panthers’ 17-year history, the correlation has been even stronger. Carolina has dropped 11 openers, and just once – in 2005 – did that season end in a playoff appearance.

Those numbers are intriguing to be sure, but they won’t mean a thing if the Panthers open with a victory and don’t advance to postseason play.

This opener, however, might be even more important than trends suggest.

First of all, it’s against a division opponent, specifically the division doormat last season. The Panthers’ strong finish in 2011 included a pair of lopsided victories over the Buccaneers, so a loss could be difficult to bounce back from.

And while the Panthers’ coaches can’t afford to look beyond the Buccaneers, fans can’t help but take a peek. What follows are games against a trio of teams that all made the playoffs last season, including a visit by the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

On both sides of the Giants game, the Panthers will face their other NFC South rivals, taking on the New Orleans Saints to open the home schedule and visiting the Atlanta Falcons.

Even playoff-caliber teams could lose all three of those games, though it would be unlikely they could recover to reach the playoffs if that actually happened.

In the Panthers’ case, an 0-3 stretch would be that much harder to overcome given that two of those opponents are in their division. An 0-3 stretch after losing the opener? Forget about it.

Of course, the Panthers have no intention of losing any of those games, and it’s not like the schedule suddenly gets easy after that. Games against the likes of Dallas, Chicago, Denver and Philadelphia await.

The plan, of course, is for the Panthers to make the teams on their schedule sweat, rather than the other way around.

Sunday is the starting point.