The Carolina Panthers will begin the 2012 season at Tampa Bay while the Democratic National Convention is in Charlotte, and end it in New Orleans, the site of next year’s Super Bowl. In between, the Panthers will face their former coach, both Manning brothers, and the reigning Super Bowl champion Giants in one of two primetime games.
For only the third time in franchise history, the Panthers will meet all three of their divisional opponents during the first four weeks of the season – a good test for a team that believes it can be a playoff contender in coach Ron Rivera’s second season.
Following a rookie of the year campaign by quarterback Cam Newton and a big offensive turnaround, the Panthers landed a pair of prime-time matchups against NFC East opponents.
The Panthers will face the New York Giants on Thursday, Sept. 20 on the NFL Network, and will head to Philadelphia for a Monday Night Football appearance on ESPN on Nov. 26. The Panthers played 15 of their 16 games in 2011 at 1 p.m.
The Eagles’ game will be is Panthers’ first on Monday night since a Week 3 loss at Dallas in 2009. The Panthers are 5-4 on Monday nights.
The Panthers played four prime-time games in 1997, following their surprising run to the NFC Championship Game in the franchise’s second season. Carolina had Monday night games against San Francisco and Dallas in ’97, and had Sunday night games against Washington and Atlanta as part of TNT’s NFL package.
The Panthers, who were 6-10 last season, will face a tough early test with games against 2011 playoff teams in Weeks 2-4. The stretch will begin with a home game against the New Orleans Saints, in their second game without suspended coach Sean Payton.
The Panthers will host the Giants four days later, before traveling to Atlanta on Sept. 30. Carolina will open with two divisional opponents – the Panthers travel to Tampa Bay in Week 1 when the DNC is in Charlotte – for just the third time in franchise history.
“We had a strong finish last year and hope to maintain that momentum for the 2012 season,” Rivera said in a release. “We play in one of the best divisions in the NFL and play all three division teams plus the New York Giants in the first four games. It’s going to be a challenge, but one that excites us.”
Cam vs. Vick
The Monday night matchup will feature Newton against Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Newton, last year’s No. 1 pick, grew up in Atlanta rooting for Vick, who was the top pick of the Falcons in 2001. The two have stayed in contact, with Vick calling Newton last year during his record-breaking rookie season.
The Panthers’ Nov. 4 game at Washington likely will produce a matchup of the past two Heisman Trophy winners in Newton and ex-Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, expected to go to the Redskins with the second pick in next week’s draft.
Newton indicated he put Griffin first on his Heisman ballot in December.
Double dose of Mannings
The league’s first family of quarterbacks will be involved in two games in Charlotte. Peyton Manning, the most famous free agent in NFL history, will come to Bank of America Stadium on Nov. 11 with Denver. The Broncos signed him to a five-year, $96 million contract after the Colts waived him in March as part of their massive house cleaning.
Eli Manning, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, will take aim against the Panthers in the second of five prime-time games for the Giants.
Eli Manning threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns, but he also was picked off three times, the last time he faced Carolina – a 31-18 New York victory in the 2010 opener when Matt Moore was the Panthers’ starting quarterback.
It was what it was
The matchup with Peyton will be one of two intriguing storylines the week of the Denver game. Broncos coach John Fox will coach his first game in Charlotte, where he spent nine seasons and led the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance during the 2003 season.
During his lame-duck 2010 season, Fox infamously casting blame on the “personnel department” when asked about the possibility of adding a veteran quarterback in the midst of the injury-filled, 2-14 season.
Fox, who still has a house in Quail Hollow and two sons at Elon, is sure to use the phrase, “it is what it is” at least once in the days leading to his return to Charlotte.
Rivera will face all three of his former teams with road games at Chicago (Oct. 28), Philadelphia and San Diego (Dec. 16).