Carolina Panthers schedule analysis

Breakdown: The NFL rewarded the Panthers for their 12-4 season with three prime-time games, Sept. 21 vs. Pittsburgh (NBC, Sunday), Oct. 30 vs. New Orleans (NFLN, Thursday) and Nov. 10 at Philadelphia (ESPN, Monday). The irony is Carolina had the league's toughest schedule last season after going 7-9 in 2012 and this year's schedule ranks only 22nd. It sets up well for a fast start, something Carolina hasn't had in three seasons under coach Ron Rivera. None of the first five opponents -- at Tampa Bay, vs. Detroit, vs. Pittsburgh, at Baltimore and vs. Chicago -- had better than an 8-8 record last season. And three are at home. That bodes well for an offense that needs time to gel after losing its top four wide receivers and starting left tackle Jordan Gross.

Then it gets tough with three consecutive games against 2013 division winners: at Cincinnati, at Green Bay and vs. Seattle. It's hard to imagine an eight-game winning streak in the middle of the schedule, like Carolina had last season, against that stretch. The end of the schedule gives Carolina a chance for a late-season run if needed with home games against Tampa Bay and Cleveland, followed by the Falcons in Atlanta. While some games will be bigger nationally, the most anticipated locally will be the Sept. 28 trip to Baltimore to face former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, who was released in February under a cloud of controversy.

Complaint department: I don't understand why the NFL didn't schedule Carolina's Oct. 26 home game against Super Bowl champ Seattle in prime time. They were the top two seeds in the NFC a year ago. They played a tough defensive battle in last season's opener, won by the Seahawks 12-7. It just seemed like a natural choice. Speaking of the Seahawks, they fall in an 18-day stretch for Carolina that includes road games against Cincinnati and Green Bay and a home game against New Orleans. If the Panthers don't get off to a fast start this could be the stretch that breaks them.

Familiar friend or foe? This is the blood-and-guts category, that Sept. 28 trip to Baltimore. That's when the Panthers face Smith, their all-time leading receiver. It's also my birthday if anybody is keeping track. Nobody deserves blood and guts, as Smith promised his former team when released, on their birthday. This, as said previously, will be the most anticipated game on the schedule. Smith is out to prove the Panthers made a mistake in releasing him. The Panthers will be out to prove it was the right move. That the game will take place in the first month of the season puts a lot of pressure on a new group of Carolina receivers who will be under the microscope.

Strength of schedule: 22nd, .473 | Vegas over/under: 8.5

Panthers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Tampa Bay, 4:25 p.m.

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, Detroit, 1 p.m.

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m.

Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Chicago, 1 p.m.

Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Green Bay, 1 p.m.

Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Seattle, 1 p.m.

Week 9: Thursday, Oct. 30, New Orleans, 8:25 p.m.

Week 10: Monday, Nov. 10, at Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m.

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Atlanta, 1 p.m.

Week 12: BYE

Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Cleveland, 1 p.m.

Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.