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Schedule breakdown: One quarter at a time

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A strong start or a strong finish more often than not assures a team relevance in the playoff race.

A strong start and a strong finish all but assures a spot in the playoffs.

Finishing strong will be a daunting task in 2018 with a schedule backloaded with NFC South showdowns, so beginning on a high note is paramount to the Panthers’ hopes of making it five playoff appearances in six years.

Here’s a breakdown of the schedule by quarters, including opponents’ 2017
records and Carolina’s recent performance at the various stages.

First quarter
vs. Cowboys (9-7), at Falcons (10-6), vs. Bengals (7-9), vs. Giants (3-13)
Panthers’ record last five years: 11-9 (.550)

The Panthers overcame slow starts to reach the playoffs in 2013 and ’14,
but their last two playoff teams rode hot starts – a combined 7-1 mark
in ’15 and ’17 over the four games. A similar start seems possible but
won’t be easy.

The three teams with early trips to Bank of America Stadium will be looking to make amends after falling flat a year ago. The Cowboys and Giants both failed to return to the playoffs in 2017 after being there in 2016, while the 2017 Bengals gave Cincinnati back-to-back playoff-less seasons for the first time since 2007. All three are buried in the twenties in Elliot Harrison’s power rankings (the Panthers are 10th).

The one road trip to kick things off is a doozy – a showdown with the division rival Falcons, who have won three consecutive home games in the series.

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Second quarter
at Redskins (7-9), at Eagles (13-3), vs. Ravens (9-7), vs. Buccaneers (5-11)
Panthers’ record last five years: 13-6-1 (.675)

Each quarter of the schedule features a particularly difficult road game,
and the trip to Philly to face the reigning champs takes the cake in
this quadrant. Washington certainly isn’t to be overlooked either, and
then the Panthers return home to face an always competitive Baltimore
team and a Tampa Bay team that no doubt will once again be saying this
will finally be their year.

On the whole, the first half of the schedule looks a little more manageable than the second half. Carolina’s average record at the halfway point over the past five seasons has been 5-3; given what’s to come, a mark of 6-2 (or better of course)
would set a nice pace for the playoff cause.

Third quarter
at Steelers (13-3), at Lions (9-7), vs. Seahawks (9-7), at Buccaneers (5-11)
Panthers’ record last five years: 12-8 (.600)

As much chatter (and understandably so) surrounding the tail-end of the
schedule, this is the only stretch with both three road games and three
opponents with winning records in 2017. It starts off with a trip to
Pittsburgh – a place where Carolina has never won in three trips – and ends with a trip to Tampa to start off a division-heavy
conclusion to the schedule.

The one home game in the stretch is against a rarely accommodating Seattle squad. Beating the Steelers would be a coup, but if not the Panthers probably need to win two of the three that follow.

Fourth quarter
at Browns (0-16), vs. Saints (11-5), vs. Falcons (10-6), at Saints (11-5)
Panthers’ record last five years: 15-5 (.750)

The final month starts against a Cleveland team that has to be better
(right?) to wrap up four road games in five weeks. Then the division
should be determined from there, with back-to-back home games against
the other two NFC South teams that made the playoffs in 2017 and finally
the finale in New Orleans (by the way, both the Saints and Falcons visit
Tampa over the final quarter of the season).

It’s not exactly a stunning stat, but head coach Ron Rivera’s four playoff teams had a
combined 17-7 mark in division games while his three teams that didn’t
make the playoffs were 6-12. Carolina can probably finish 3-3 at worst
in the division and still make the playoffs, so the Panthers will probably need to take care of business at home come December to still be
playing in January.

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