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Panthers want to open strong...like 49ers

Posted Sep 6, 2017

Week 1 hasn't been as kind to the Panthers in recent years as it has been to their opening opponent.

I'll give you three guesses as to which NFL team has the longest current streak of Week 1 victories. No peeking.

Patriots? Broncos? Maybe the Packers?

Try the San Francisco 49ers, who will host the Panthers in Week 1 this Sunday.

Each of the previous six seasons, come the end of opening weekend, 49ers fans have been able to bask in still being undefeated, have been able to claim at least a piece of first place in the NFC West.

The Panthers, over that same stretch – which lines up perfectly with the beginning of the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera era – are 2-4 in openers. Yet over the course of those six seasons, both the Panthers and 49ers have qualified for the playoffs three times.

"It sets the tone," Rivera said. "You obviously want to win every game you play. This is our first game. Most certainly the object is to win. That's our intent.

"We're going out there to win a football game and get the momentum started early."

San Francisco's six-year streak seems surprising because over the past two seasons only the Browns have totaled few victories than the 49ers. However, only the Patriots, Broncos and Packers claimed more regular season victories than the 49ers from 2011-2014.

Two of San Francisco's seven victories over the past two seasons have come in Week 1. Will that seemingly uncanny ability to start strong matter come Sunday? Will Sunday's outcome matter come the end of the 2017 regular season?

Not necessarily on either account. Rather, factors that go beyond any numbers will inevitably determine the relative importance of Sunday's final score.

Back to the numbers for a minute, though. For the record, there's not a super-strong correlation between winning in Week 1 and making the playoffs, as the last two 49ers squads clearly can attest. The 12 eventual playoff teams in 2016 went a combined 9-3 in Week 1, but that's the best record along those lines since 2009. In 2015, the 12 eventual playoff teams went 7-5 in Week 1.

The Panthers know both sides of the coin. In 2001, Carolina became the first and still only NFL team to start 1-0 and finish 1-15. But in 2013, the Panthers started 0-1 (and 1-3 in fact) before recovering to finish 12-4.

The Panthers have made the playoffs seven times; they're 5-2 in those season openers.

OK, so back to Sunday. The 49ers have at least one arguable advantage against the Panthers that they also had the last two openers: the element of surprise. The 2015 team featured first-year head coach Jim Tomsula and handled a Vikings team that eventually made the playoffs by a 20-3 count. Last year, the 49ers featured first-year head coach Chip Kelly and handled a not very good Rams team 28-zip. This year? Kyle Shanahan is in his first year as head coach.

That element of surprise could be somewhat minimized, however, by the fact that Shanahan spent the previous two seasons as offensive coordinator for the Falcons, a foe Carolina faces twice a year in the NFC South. And while Shanahan is in a rebuilding situation, the Panthers are in position to quickly build back to the playoff team they were from 2013-15 before things went strangely sideways in 2016.

Sunday isn't a must-win, as the numbers clearly show. But the Panthers want to clearly show that 2016 was an aberration, and there's no better way to start the journey than showing that the 49ers' recent run of Week 1 success is an aberration as well.