2017 Carolina Panthers game-by-game predictions

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Coach Ron Rivera insisted last season the NFL schedule makers set the Carolina Panthers up for failure by having them open at Denver in a Super Bowl 50 rematch.

He argued Carolina earned the right to a home opener as the defending NFC champions.

He argued playing Denver prolonged the agony of losing the Super Bowl eight months earlier because that was the focus during the offseason and preseason.

He argued the one-point loss in the rematch set the tone for a 6-10 record.

Other than having to open on the road for the sixth time in seven seasons, Rivera won’t have much to complain about with a 2017 schedule that is favorable for a fast start.

Here’s my game-by-game prediction:

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 10, at San Francisco 49ers, 4:25 p.m. ET

The schedule makers may be taunting Rivera a bit with this one. Yes, Carolina may be reminded of Super Bowl 50 with its first return to Levi’s Stadium since losing the title game. But the rebuilding 49ers will remind no one of the Broncos, making this an almost sure Carolina win even if quarterback Cam Newton’s shoulder isn’t 100 percent. Record: 1-0

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 17, vs. Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. ET

New Bills coach Sean McDermott may have the temptation to walk into the home locker room after spending the past six seasons as Carolina’s defensive coordinator. The same for Buffalo running back Mike Tolbert and wide receiver Philly Brown, who weren’t retained by the Panthers. All will have a star by this one for different reasons. It won’t matter. Record: 2-0.

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 24, vs. New Orleans Saints, 1 p.m. ET

Will this be Drew Brees’ last game at Bank of America Stadium for the Saints? The 38-year-old has won only one of his last four games as the starter in Charlotte, so if that trend continues he may want it to be. Record: 3-0

Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 1, at New England Patriots, 1 p.m. ET

Rivera has to be glad he didn’t have to open at the home of the defending Super Bowl champion for a second straight year. Imagine what he would say about the schedule makers had that happened. Facing Tom Brady is bad enough when the crowd isn’t pumped over the return of football. Record: 3-1

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 8, at Detroit Lions, 1 p.m. ET

The last time the Panthers traveled to the Motor City (2011) the Lions put up 49 points against them in Rivera’s first season at Carolina. That’s still the most given up by a Rivera team, and the Lions may be better now. Record: 3-2

Week 6: Thursday, Oct. 12, vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 8:25 p.m. ET

Maybe this game will bring back good memories for Carolina. The last time these teams met in Charlotte the Panthers won 27-16 in a prime-time game during a magical 15-1 2015 season. The whole stadium was dabbing then. Record: 4-2

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 22, at Chicago Bears, 1 p.m. ET

Reunion I for defensive end Julius Peppers, who left the Panthers after the 2009 season to go to Chicago. He had 37.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl three times in four years with the Bears. He was 3-0 against Carolina during that span, but had only 1.5 sacks. He may get that in this one. Record: 5-2

Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 29, at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET

Anybody who didn’t realize Newton’s throwing shoulder was worse than the team let on in December should watch film of last season’s finale in Tampa Bay. He had absolutely no zip on the ball at times, throwing three interceptions. He should be closer to 100 percent after offseason rotator cuff surgery, but the Bucs already are. Record: 5-3

Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 5, vs. Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET

If you’re going to reclaim the NFC South title you won three straight years before last season, you need to beat the team that took it away from you – especially at home. When that team pummeled you 33-16 at home a year ago, you have even more incentive. Who knows, maybe the Falcons are having a Super Bowl hangover. Record: 6-3

Week 10: Monday, Nov. 13, vs. Miami Dolphins, 8:30 p.m. ET

A prime-time Shula Bowl. It could be if legendary Miami coach Don Shula comes to Charlotte to watch his son, Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula, call plays. The last Shula Bowl was a year ago when the Panthers faced San Diego. Mike’s nephew, Chris, was the quality control coach for the Chargers. Mike’s brother, Dave, also was in attendance. Record: 7-3

Week 11: Bye

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 26, at New York Jets, 1 p.m. ET

The Jets have won three out of six games in their history against Carolina, and two have been in East Rutherford. But the Jets still are a team in search of an identity at home and on the road. Record: 8-3

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 3, at New Orleans Saints, 1 p.m. ET

Brees had his way against the 2016 Carolina secondary before it began to mature. He threw for 465 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-38 victory at the Louisiana Superdome a year ago. “They did exploit some of our young guys,’’ Rivera said afterward. Brees is still capable of that, particularly at home. Record: 8-4

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 10, vs. Minnesota Vikings, 1 p.m. ET

Remember that block in the back against the Vikings by Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin last season? It negated a 56-yard touchdown catch by running back Fozzy Whittaker that would have given the Panthers a 17-2 lead. That may be the single-biggest negative play in a disastrous 2016 season in that it opened the door for Minnesota to win 22-10 and sent the Panthers to a 1-2 start that snowballed to 1-5. Record: 9-4

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 17, vs. Green Bay Packers, 1 p.m. ET

Reunion II for Peppers, who spent the past three seasons with the Packers. The Panthers tried to get Peppers to come home three years ago, but he opted last minute to sign with Green Bay for the chance to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme versus end in a 4-3. He was quite good at it, too, collecting 25 sacks. That’s more any current Carolina player had during that span. Still, Aaron Rodgers is pretty good. Record: 9-5

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 24, vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. ET

The Panthers had won six straight against the Bucs before last season’s 17-14 loss at Bank of America Stadium in which Newton sat out because of a concussion. In a season of bad plays, Derek Anderson’s interception on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line – yes, first down – was a killer. Newton should be at full strength by now. He can lean over for 1 yard. Record: 10-5

Week 17: Dec. 31, at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. ET

Remember the last time these teams met in Atlanta? Julio Jones and Newton surely do. Jones had 12 catches for 300 yards and a touchdown. He cost cornerback Bene Benwikere his job. Newton suffered a concussion trying to score a two-point conversion that forced him to sit out the next game. This one could be memorable, too. One team will win the NFC South. Record: 10-6