Panthers 2021 schedule: Darnold opens against old team; Cam and Rivera return

CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers’ 2021 schedule was released along with the rest of the NFL slate on Wednesday.

The 2021 NFL season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 9 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosting the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m.).

[WSOC: PANTHERS NEWS & HEADLINES]

Week 1 will close with the Baltimore Ravens and the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football -- a game that will air at 8 p.m. on Channel 9.

Panthers 2021 Season Schedule:

The NFL will change its schedule for the first time 44 years, expanding to 17 regular-season games. The final regular-season games will be played Jan. 9, 2022. The playoffs begin Jan. 15, 2022 and continue through Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022 at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium.

Here’s what in store for the Panthers:

Preseason:

  • Game 1: TBD
  • Aug 20-22: Baltimore
  • Aug. 27: Pittsburgh

Regular season:

  • Sept. 12: vs. NY Jets
  • Sept. 19: vs. New Orleans
  • Sept. 23: at Houston (TNF)
  • Oct. 3: at Dallas
  • Oct. 10: vs. Philadelphia
  • Oct. 17: vs. Minnesota
  • Oct. 24: at NY Giants
  • Oct. 31: at Atlanta
  • Nov. 7: vs. New England
  • Nov. 14: at Arizona
  • Nov. 21: vs. Washington
  • Nov. 28: at Miami
  • Dec. 5: Bye
  • Dec. 12: vs. Atlanta
  • Dec. 18 or 19: at Buffalo
  • Dec. 26: vs. Tampa Bay
  • Jan. 2: at New Orleans
  • Jan. 8 or 9: at Tampa Bay

Strength of schedule (hardest to easiest): 26th, .472

Biggest takeaway

The Panthers will discover immediately how well Sam Darnold handles pressure, as they open against the Jets, the team that traded the quarterback away. The Panthers have a favorable start overall with consecutive home games (Jets, Saints) and then a Thursday night game at Houston. All are winnable, as the Jets have a rookie quarterback, New Orleans is without Drew Brees and Houston is rebuilding.

A loss in more than one of those doesn’t bode well for a young team that moved on from Teddy Bridgewater and on to Darnold, who was 13-25 in three seasons with the Jets. If Darnold performs well and Carolina starts fast, there will be reason for optimism.

Storyline to watch

No storyline is bigger than Darnold. Carolina put all of its faith in the third pick of the 2018 draft by trading for him and then selecting cornerback Jaycee Horn in the first round of this year’s draft instead of Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

If Darnold starts slowly, the pressure will mount on him and the coaching staff. That the schedule includes the return of Cam Newton for the first time since the team moved on from him magnifies the importance of the quarterback. Darnold will have a full arsenal with a healthy Christian McCaffrey and rebuilt offensive line, so there will be no excuses.

What Vegas thinks

The oddsmakers have the Panthers with a win total of 7.5, but if Darnold comes through, nine or 10 wins is reasonable. Remember, this team was 0-8 last season in games in which it had a chance to win or tie on the final possession. Had it won half of those, it would have been in the playoff picture instead of 5-11.

The Panthers rank 26th in the league in opponents’ strength of schedule for 2021, though that number is based on 2020 records and doesn’t always turn out to be an accurate indicator of the following year’s performance, the team stated in a news release.

Carolina only plays six teams this season which advanced to the 2020 playoffs, but finish the schedule with four straight against postseason participants.

That begins with a Week 15 trip to Buffalo, followed by a home game against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, then a road game at New Orleans before closing the now-17-game schedule with a trip to Tampa Bay.

That strenuous final stretch of the season is made more difficult because the Panthers have to wait so long to catch their breath.

Their bye week comes in Week 13, marking a long march through training camp, preseason and 12 straight weeks of football before a chance to rest.

They host the Saints in Week 2, then go to Houston for their only scheduled primetime game of the season in Week 3.

That Sept. 23 appearance on Thursday Night Football is the only night game, as 14 of the 17 games are scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sundays.

They also have a late-afternoon trip to Arizona in Week 10, and the Week 15 game against the Bills is to be determined (either Dec. 18 or 19). That’s one of five TBDs on the schedule in Week 15, and two of those will be played on Saturday. That determination will be made no later than four weeks prior to the game.

The Panthers will have to wait until midseason for the reunion tour to kick in. Week 7 features a trip to New York with former general manager Dave Gettleman and cornerback James Bradberry and kicker Graham Gano. Week 9 brings a potential rematch against former quarterback Cam Newton, as the Patriots visit on Nov. 7. Week 11 brings a visit from former coach Ron Rivera and many others including wide receiver Curtis Samuel, when the Washington Football Team comes to Charlotte.

Panthers single-game tickets can be purchased here.

ESPN and The Carolina Panthers contributed to this report.