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Schedule breakdown: One quarter at a time

Posted Apr 20, 2017

Take a look at the Panthers' potential path to the playoffs, broken down into a foursome of four-game seasons.

Starting strong and finishing even stronger are hallmarks of successful NFL teams.

That goes for how each individual game on the schedule plays out, but it also goes for the schedule as a whole.

The Panthers already knew who they'd play in 2017 but found out when they'd play them Thursday when the NFL released the regular season schedule.

Carolina has made the playoffs three of the past four seasons, reaching the postseason in 2013 after getting off to a slow start (1-3) and in 2014 after a lull in the middle (no victories Weeks 6-13). But one thing the Panthers have consistently done when making the playoffs is finish with a flourish, going 10-2 over the final quarter of the regular season in their three playoff years but just 2-2 when the playoff streak ended last season.

Here's a breakdown of the schedule by quarters, including opponents' 2016 records and the Panthers' recent performance at the various stages.

First quarter
at 49ers (2-14), vs. Bills (7-9), vs. Saints (7-9), at Patriots (14-2)
Panthers' record last four years: 8-8

The Panthers never fully recovered from a 1-3 start last season but have a good chance on paper to start strong in 2017. Their first three opponents rank in the bottom 10 of Elliot Harrison's latest power rankings on NFL.com, with the two matchups against teams coming off similar seasons to Carolina's 6-10 campaign both being played at home. If Carolina can come away from the first three weeks with a winning record or perhaps a perfect one, Week 4 at the reigning Super Bowl champions would be a "measuring stick" game of the highest order.

Second quarter
at Lions (9-7), vs. Eagles (7-9), at Bears (3-13), at Buccaneers (9-7)
Panthers' record last four years: 11-4-1

This is a quarter of the schedule where the Panthers have made hay in recent years, and no one in this group appears overwhelming. But three of the four games are on the road, and while the Bears are starting over in some ways, the Lions are coming off a playoff appearance and the Eagles and Buccaneers appear to be on the rise under the guidance of fast-developing quarterbacks. Still, another seemingly manageable quarter.

Third quarter
vs. Falcons (11-5), vs. Dolphins (10-6), at Jets (5-11), at Saints (7-9)
Panthers' record last four years: 9-7

The second half of the season kicks off with back-to-back games against two of the four teams on the schedule that won 10 or more games last season, though both contests are at home. Winning on the road is never easy in the NFL, especially against division foes. To head into the fourth quarter with momentum, the Panthers must win in potentially blustery New York and in the fast and furious Superdome.

Fourth quarter
vs. Vikings (8-8), vs. Packers (10-6), vs. Buccaneers (9-7), at Falcons (11-5)
Panthers' record last four years: 12-4

Arguably the most important quarter of the season is arguably the most challenging, with all four opponents coming off years in which they finished at least .500. But the first three matchups are at home before the Panthers travel to Atlanta for a showdown of teams that have combined to claim the last five NFC South crowns. It wouldn't be a surprise if this one determined the kings of the south.