5 key games for the 2021 Panthers

Carolina’s season could hinge on these showdowns

A Week 1 win over his former team could help new Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold shake off his three difficult seasons with the Jets. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers are just a week into training camp in Spartanburg, and there’s still plenty of time for players to make impressions — good or bad — before final cuts are made and the depth chart is set.

Still, it’s only natural to look forward to September, when the games count for real.

Coming off back-to-back 5-11 seasons and three straight losing campaigns, the Panthers will look to take a step forward as the young team continues to rebuild.

While the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers — who return nearly their entire starting lineup — are the clear favorite in the NFC South, the Panthers could move up the standings quickly with both the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons showing signs of the type of roster-clearing rebuild that Carolina started two years ago.

A second-place finish and a run at a postseason berth seem to be reasonable goals for the 2021 Panthers, although there are enough question marks on both sides of the ball that a fourth straight losing season is also a danger for the team.

Which direction will Carolina head in this year? Here are the five games on the schedule that could go a long way toward determining that.

Week 1, Sept. 12, home against Jets

The opening game is always a key early indicator of a team’s fate for the upcoming season. Carolina will be looking to go 1-0 for the first time in three seasons when it hosts the Jets.

In addition to the momentum a season-opening win will provide to the team, Carolina has much more riding on the matchup with the Jets. New starting quarterback Sam Darnold was New York’s quarterback of the future after being taken with the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He struggled through three years with the Jets, however, and is now looking for a new start in Carolina. A strong performance against his old team could help rid Darnold of any lingering trauma from his time with the lowly Jets. If he struggles, however, it could be a damaging setback to the psyche of the team’s most important player on offense.

Week 2, Sept. 19, home against Saints

It didn’t take long for the next key game to come up on the schedule. The Panthers have started the last two seasons 0-2 and haven’t gotten off to a 2-0 start since 2017, their last playoff appearance. The Panthers also haven’t won their NFC South opener in five years, not since the 2015 Super Bowl season, which was also the last time Carolina won the division.

The Saints will try to replace Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees with Jameis Winston — last seen threatening a record for interceptions thrown with the pre-Super Bowl Tampa Bay Bucs. New Orleans also suffered offseason losses at tight end, defensive line and secondary.

In other words, the Saints are there for the taking. While there’s still plenty of talent on the Saints roster, this game will determine which rebuilding team is ready to step up into the second spot in the division.

Week 8, Oct. 31, at Falcons

The Panthers get their first shot at another team they’re hoping to leapfrog in the NFC South on Halloween day. The Falcons have a new coach and GM, and they traded arguably their best player — and a longtime thorn in the Panthers’ side — in wide receiver Julio Jones. The game comes in a four-game stretch that looks like toss-ups on paper — at the Giants, at Atlanta, home against New England and at Arizona.

Week 11, Nov. 21, home against Washington

The four-game midseason stretch is followed by two more winnable games leading into the bye — home against former coach Ron Rivera and Washington, followed by a trip to Miami. The Panthers beat Rivera in Washington last year in Week 16 for their final win of the season. This game could have more at stake for both teams.

Week 17, Jan. 2, at Saints

In addition to being another key NFC South divisional game — the middle one of three straight to close the regular season — this appears to be Carolina’s best chance at a win in the final four weeks of the schedule. The Panthers close with a trip to Buffalo, considered a short-list contender for the Super Bowl, then play Tampa Bay twice in the final three weeks. The Saints are sandwiched in between the two games with the Bucs and a win could help to stave off a late-season tailspin.