CHARLOTTE — The Panthers knew who they were playing already, but putting them in order Wednesday night made it a little more concrete, and allows people to think ahead.
In addition to the six games against the NFC South, the Panthers play the AFC East and NFC East, along with fellow third-place finishers from the NFC West (Arizona) and NFC Central (Minnesota) and the new 17th game against the Texans.
Statistically, it's a workable slate, ranked 26th in the league in terms of strength of schedule (based on last year's results). That schedule is also backloaded, with four of their six games against 2020 playoff teams coming in the final month.
As always, last year's results aren't always a reliable predictor. That said, here's an early game-by-game look at the Panthers' 2021 schedule.
(2020 record, finish in standings) All times Eastern.
Week 1: vs. New York Jets (2-14, 4th place AFC East) | Sept. 12, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 4-3 | Last matchup: A 35-27 win on Nov. 26, 2017.
We'll get an early indication of whether a couple of franchises made the right decision at quarterback. The Panthers were happy to take Sam Darnold off the Jets' hands, when they set their heart on another first-round quarterback (Zach Wilson). But the quarterback isn't all that's new in New York, as the former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh takes over as head coach. The Jets were careful to give Wilson some early help in the draft, adding offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker and wide receiver Elijah Moore to help bolster a roster that needs time to build.
Week 2: vs. Saints (12-4, 1st place NFC South) | Sept. 19, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 25-28 | Last home matchup: A 33-7 loss on Jan. 3, 2021.
So much has changed since the last time the Saints came to Charlotte. That game in January marked Drew Brees' final regular-season game before his post-playoff retirement. It's unclear at the moment who will be under center for them when this game rolls around (likely either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill), but it's a huge change regardless, and either quarterback has the benefit of a talented roster around him.
Week 3: at Texans (4-12, 3rd place AFC South) | Sept. 23, 8:20 p.m. Thursday Night Football
All-time record: 3-2 | Last matchup: A 16-10 win on the road on Sept. 29, 2019.
With only five previous matchups, the Texans are the team the Panthers have played least often in franchise history. And the lack of track record seems appropriate, at a time of transition for both teams. Even without the uncertainty about quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Texans have plenty of questions. There's a new coach (David Culley), a new general manager (Nick Caserio) and there's no more J.J. Watt on defense. What they will look like in September is anyone's guess.
Week 4: at Cowboys (6-10, 3rd place NFC East) | Oct. 3, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 5-9 | Last matchup: A 16-8 win on Sept. 9, 2018.
The Cowboys found out the hard way last year about life without a quarterback. But Dak Prescott is back and healthy and newly rich, giving them the kind of stability teams long for. While their offensive line hasn't aged well, the Cowboys still have top-shelf skill position talent around Prescott in Ezekiel Elliott and receivers Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup. Adding first-round linebacker Micah Parsons gives them a shot of energy on defense which they needed.
Week 5: vs. Eagles (4-11-1, 4th place NFC East) | Oct. 10, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 5-7 | Last matchup: A 21-17 road win on Oct. 21, 2018.
It's amazing to think that only three seasons have passed since this team won the Super Bowl. They blew it up this offseason, parting ways with coach Doug Peterson and trading away quarterback Carson Wentz, leaving Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts to try to start piecing things together. Using their first-round pick on wide receiver DeVonta Smith gives Hurts a better chance at making the job his own, but the Eagles are a shell of the team they were recently.
Week 6: vs. Vikings (7-9, 3rd place NFC North) | Oct. 17, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 6-9 | Last matchup: A 28-27 loss on the road on Nov. 29, 2020.
Hey, remember Jeremy Chinn's two touchdowns on consecutive plays? That was fun. Otherwise, last year's loss to the Vikings was a brutal one, with the offense unable to finish the game, leaving the door open for Kirk Cousins to throw a last-minute game-winning touchdown. The Vikings have stuck with their up-and-down quarterback, but drafting Kellen Mond in the third round suggests they're at least thinking about the future beyond their current starter.
Week 7: at Giants (6-10, 2nd place NFC East) | Oct. 24, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 7-4 | Last matchup: A 33-31 home win on Oct. 7, 2018
The Panthers won't have Graham Gano to rely on this time. The veteran kicker hit game-winning field goals as time expired in each of Carolina's last two games against the Giants, but he works there now. This is a pivotal year for Charlotte native Daniel Jones at quarterback, but getting running back Saquon Barkley healthy again and adding receivers Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney should help.
Week 8: at Falcons (4-12, 4th place NFC South) | Oct. 31, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 19-33 | Last road matchup: A 23-16 win on Oct. 11, 2020.
The Falcons overhauled the top management (with new general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith), but the familiar faces on offense remain, for now. There's some speculation about wide receiver Julio Jones' future, but they're financially tied to quarterback Matt Ryan for at least one more year. They bypassed the chance to find his eventual replacement in the draft, but adding tight end Kyle Pitts freshens up an offense that needed it.
Week 9: vs. Patriots (7-9, 3rd place AFC East) | Nov. 7, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 4-3 | Last matchup: A 33-30 win on the road on Oct. 1, 2017.
Having this game in the middle of the season creates a bit of mystery. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has insisted that Cam Newton is still his starter, but using a first-round pick on quarterback Mac Jones starts the clock ticking. Newton can still be a dangerous two-way player, but it remains to be seen if his arm's going to hold up long enough to hold Jones off for long. The Panthers have fared well in this matchup in the past, other than that one playoff game in 2004 which you might remember.
Week 10: at Cardinals (8-8, 3rd place NFC West) | Nov. 14, 4:05 p.m.
All-time record: 13-5 | Last matchup: A 31-21 home win on Oct. 4, 2020
The Panthers caught the Cardinals at the right time last year, as quarterback Kyler Murray was leading a much more dangerous team by the end of the season. Arizona's an interesting mix, with a young quarterback and a premier wideout in DeAndre Hopkins. But old guys always seem to go to the desert to retire, and this year's imports include wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive end J.J. Watt. That's not necessarily Emmitt Smith in Cardinals red kind of weird, but it's going to take some getting used to.
Week 11: vs. Washington Football Team (7-9, 1st place NFC East) | Nov. 21, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 7-9 | Last matchup: A 20-13 home win on Dec. 27, 2020.
There was a lot going on the last time these two saw each other. The Panthers had just fired general manager Marty Hurney (who has since returned to his ancestral home in Washington), and the WFT was in the process of getting rid of former first-rounder Dwayne Haskins. They benched Haskins that day after a dreadful start against Carolina in December, and have since brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick to go with former Panthers Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen. Coach Ron Rivera has put together a solid team, able to clutch and grab and keep things close with defense. Sounds familiar.
Week 12: at Dolphins (10-6, 2nd place AFC East) | Nov. 28, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 2-4 | Last matchup: A 45-21 win on Monday Night Football on Nov. 13, 2017.
The Dolphins made impressive strides last year, but now they're fully and completely Tua Tagvailoa's team. They've continued to work the market for trades and future value, but came out of this year's draft with Alabama wideout Jaylen Waddle, the kind of playmaker they needed on offense. With a stockpile of future picks, they're set up well for the future, and coach Brian Flores appears to be the kind of long-haul coach they've been looking for.
Week 13: Bye
Week 14: vs. Falcons (4-12, 4th place NFC South) | Dec. 12, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 19-33 | Last home matchup: A 25-17 loss on Thursday Night Football, on Oct. 29, 2020.
For all the other changes the Falcons made this offseason, they also brought in former Panthers running back Mike Davis. He subbed in for an injured Christian McCaffrey last year and had a career year, topping 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Getting with his hometown team should present another opportunity for Davis to grow.
Week 15: at Bills (13-3, 1st place AFC East) | Dec. 18 or 19, TBD
All-time record: 2-5 | Last matchup: A classic 9-3 home win on Sept. 17, 2017.
The Panthers returned the favor on the Bills this offseason, swiping away Dan Morgan to be their assistant general manager, after the Bills stocked their organization with former Panthers. Last year was a revelation, showing the world how good they thought quarterback Josh Allen was going to be. It will be hard to remain atop the division (though strangely, it's not the Patriots to push them), but landing pass-rush talent at the top of the draft (Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham) provides a stable base to build on.
Week 16: vs. Buccaneers (11-5, 2nd place NFC South) | Dec. 26, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 24-17 | Last home matchup: A 46-23 loss on Nov. 15, 2020.
The Panthers were competitive and kept games close for most of last year — except for the second meeting with the Bucs. That was the one game where they let go of the rope, and things got away from them in a hurry. That this game is happening so late in the season will keep it from having as much impact, but that 2020 game became an object lesson for Matt Rhule's first team, a handbook on how not to handle big games.
Week 17: at Saints (12-4, 1st place NFC South) | Jan. 2, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 25-28 | Last road matchup: A 27-24 loss on Oct. 25, 2020.
It probably can't get any worse than the way the Panthers played against the Saints in Week 17 last year. Fortunately, that was the finale, because after a five-interception day (two by Teddy Bridgewater in his final appearance, three by backup P.J. Walker in the second half), the Panthers were happy to move on from an ugly finish to the season.
Week 18: at Buccaneers (11-5, 2nd place NFC South) | Jan. 9, 1:00 p.m.
All-time record: 24-17 | Last road matchup: A 31-17 loss on Sept. 20.
The good news is, Tom Brady will be 44 when this game rolls around, and coming to the end of a long regular season, so maybe he'll be tired. The bad news is it's possible Brady is a vampire and never truly ages. The defending Super Bowl champions brought the whole band back together for another run, sprinkling in a few new faces like running back Giovani Bernard. Unless time catches up with them all at once they should still be dangerous, and Brady has shown no real signs of slipping the way other quarterbacks have.
View photos and matchup information for all of the Panthers' 17 games in 2021.