Carolina Panthers' 2021 schedule: Sam Darnold needs fast start against Jets, early opponents

Sam Darnold gets to face his former team in his first game as a Carolina Panther. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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. ET). ESPN’s Monday Night Football opener on Sept. 13 will feature the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET).

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:

2021 schedule

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.

One 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. I'll take the over.

Bold prediction

Darnold (there’s that name again) will pass for more than 4,000 yards with 30 touchdowns, and see his career resurrected under offensive coordinator Joe Brady. He’s had no more than 3,024 yards or 19 touchdowns in any of his first three seasons, although in fairness he has also never played more than 13 games.