Something old, something new for Panthers’ 2021 schedule

Reunion games and an expanded regular season highlight Carolina’s slate

The Panthers will have to face Tom Brady and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in two of the final three weeks of the 2021 regular season. (Brian Blanco / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers have a mix of old and new on their 2021 schedule, which was released by the league in a televised event last week.

The new

For the first time, the Panthers — along with the rest of the NFL — will play 17 regular-season games. The league chose to add a regular-season game to the 16-week schedule, which had been the norm since the league expanded from 14 games in 1978. To make room for the extra game, the league has eliminated a preseason game. The exhibition schedule before the start of the season will now consist of three games instead of four.

With an odd number of games, teams will no longer have an equal number of home and road contests. The Panthers come out on the short end of the stick in year one with eight home games and nine road trips. The team does get two preseason games in Charlotte with one on the road.

The old

Three big reunion games are sure to stir the emotions of players and fans.

The season begins with a home game at Bank of America Stadium against the New York Jets. While the Jets may not inspire a reaction from most Panther fans, Carolina’s new quarterback is sure to have the game circled. Sam Darnold was drafted third overall by the Jets in 2018 and spent his first three seasons in the green and white. Traded to the Panthers in the offseason, he plays his first game in a new uniform against his original team.

The Panthers are on the other side of the quarterback reunion in Week 9 when the New England Patriots come to town to open the month of November. While the Pats drafted Alabama’s Mac Jones in the first round of this year’s draft, there’s a good chance that last year’s starter at quarterback for New England, Cam Newton, will be looking forward to this trip.

Newton spent the first nine years of his career with the Panthers after being drafted first overall in 2011. He left before last season as the most productive quarterback in franchise history.

Even if Jones has the starting job by November, there’s a good chance coach Bill Belichick will find a way to give Newton a shot at his old team at some point in the game.

The third reunion comes two weeks later when Ron Rivera leads the Washington Football Team into Charlotte. Rivera was fired late in the 2019 season and left as the winningest coach in Panthers history. Carolina got the win last year in Washington in its first game against Rivera since he left town. Riverboat Ron will be looking to even the score.

Here are some other observations from the Panthers 2021 slate.

Toughest trip

By the end of Week 4, the Panthers will have played as many games in the Lone Star State as in North Carolina. That’s because Carolina has back-to-back trips to Texas, playing Houston in Week 3 and the Dallas Cowboys the following week. The Texans appear to be down this season, especially if quarterback Deshaun Watson’s legal troubles keep him off the field, but that game is complicated by short rest. It is the Panthers’ only scheduled prime time game of the season and comes on Thursday Night Football, four days after a game against divisional rival New Orleans.

Late bye

The last week the NFL schedules byes for any team is Week 14. Carolina doesn’t have to wait that long, but the Panthers will still have one of the latest byes in the league. The Panthers play 12 straight weeks before getting Week 13 off. The team also has its longest trips of the season and another road game in the three weeks prior, heading to Arizona and Miami.

Meet the champs

The Panthers don’t play divisional rival Tampa Bay until Week 16, then have the Super Bowl champion Bucs twice in the season’s final three weeks. The late-season challenges also include a December trip to Buffalo, where the winter weather could make things difficult.