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Favorable schedule? It's up to Panthers


The Carolina Panthers knew before Thursday who they would play in 2013 and where they would play them, but they didn't know when they would play them.

Now that they do, all that ultimately matters is how they play them.

The Panthers know they can't play like they did while losing eight of their first 10 games in 2012. They know they can't wait to play like they did while winning five of their final six games.

"Everybody wants to start fast, but the key for us more so than anything else is coming out and playing well from the beginning, from Day One," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We have to play to our abilities, have to pick up where we left off last year and be better.

"It's about doing things the right way, and then the wins will take care of themselves."

There's no such thing as a soft schedule in the NFL. The slate does seem favorable in the early going, with the first seven games including just two teams that made the playoffs in 2012.

But it won't actually be easy, of course. Four of the seven are on the road, with home games against a Seattle Seahawks team that won a playoff game last season; a New York Giants team that won the Super Bowl 14 months ago; and a St. Louis Rams team that improved by five games last season.

November then opens with games against three teams - the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots - that reached their respective conference championship games last season. Finally, December features four NFC South games.

Last season, the first month featured three division games, and Carolina dug itself a hole with a pair of losses.

"It's quite a division," Rivera said. "We have to have success in the South."

The only sure way to reach the playoffs is by winning the division. Just ask the Chicago Bears, who went 10-6 last season but didn't qualify, or the Giants, who didn't get the chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions despite sporting the same 9-7 mark they recorded before their last title.

While the last-place team in the other seven divisions averaged four wins last season, the last-place team in the NFC South won seven. The Panthers' strong finish allowed them to forge a three-way tie behind the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons, and the Panthers won the tiebreaker to take second.

In part because of that, the Panthers' schedule is the NFL's toughest on paper, with opponents sporting a combined winning percentage of 54.3 percent.

"That's football," Rivera said. "I look at it this way: They've got to play us, too."

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