NFC South: 2014 NFC schedule analysis

NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions

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.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions

Breakdown: What jumps out immediately when glancing at the Atlanta Falcons' schedule: a season-opening tilt against their bitter NFC South rival New Orleans Saints on Sept. 7. The two met in last year's season opener in New Orleans, won by the Saints, 23-17. The Falcons actually played their most spirited game of 2013 when the Saints visited the Georgia Dome on Nov. 21 and walked away with a 17-13 victory. For a team that needs to start strong in 2014, the Falcons couldn't have asked for a better matchup in terms of the fans rallying behind them. The Falcons are 3-3 in season openers under Mike Smith.

As for the rest of the schedule, the Falcons have a few tough hurdles. First, they travel to London on Oct. 26 for a "home" game against the Detroit Lions. This is followed by a bye week, then with consecutive road contests against division foes Tampa Bay (Nov. 9) and Carolina (Nov. 16). And at the end of the season, the Falcons have a stretch of five tough games against Arizona, Green Bay (road), Pittsburgh, New Orleans (road), and Carolina.

Complaint department: I can hear Roddy White complaining right now. White was shivering in the cold at Lambeau Field last season when the Falcons made the trip to Green Bay in December. Guess what? The Falcons once again have to travel to Green Bay with a Dec. 8 matchup for ESPN's "Monday Night Football." The Falcons didn't handle the elements too well last year and let the ball slip one too many times in a 22-21 loss. Better pack long underwear and gloves. At least the Falcons get to travel to Minnesota early.

Not ready for prime time? We mentioned the Green Bay game on Monday night. The Falcons also face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night in Week 3. Other than those games, the Falcons are not slated for any other prime-time games after having five on the schedule last season, with one flexed back to the afternoon (Green Bay). The new flex-scheduling rules allows for games to be changed as of Week 5. If the Falcons regain their footing and are back in the playoff hunt, it wouldn't be a surprise to see either of the last two games -- at New Orleans and home against Carolina -- moved to the evening. Facing the Bears at home on Oct. 12 with the possibility of Devin Hester exploding against his old team also sounds appealing as a prime-time matchup.

Strength of schedule: 11th, .512 | Vegas over/under : 8.5

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Thursday, Sept. 18, Tampa Bay, 8:25 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at NY Giants, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Detroit, 9:30 a.m. (in London)
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Monday, Dec. 8, at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Carolina, 1 p.m.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions

Breakdown: In general, the New Orleans Saints' schedule is fairly manageable. Their strength of schedule is tied for 23rd in the NFL, and they don’t face the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos or New England Patriots. However, the Saints probably would have drawn things up a little differently if they could have written their own weekly lineup.

The Saints had better win on the road early in the season. Their first four road games are arguably the four easiest -- at Atlanta in Week 1, at Cleveland in Week 2, at Dallas in Week 4 and at Detroit in Week 7 following a bye.

The Saints need to go at least 3-1 over that stretch. They should really start out 6-2 or 7-1 overall if they want to contend for a top seed in the NFC. The schedule gets tougher down the stretch with a Thursday night game at Carolina in Week 9 and road trips at Pittsburgh in Week 13, at Chicago in Week 15 and at Tampa Bay in Week 17.

Complaint department: The Thursday night game at Carolina marks the third straight year the Saints have to face a division rival on the road on a Thursday night. And that’s the toughest challenge for teams all season. They’d much rather play at home during those short weeks.

The cold-weather games late in the year also stand out, especially playing at Chicago on a Monday night in late December. But some cold-weather games were inevitable with the Saints' road schedule this year since they're traveling north so often. At least they get to avoid the boiling-hot weather by playing at Tampa in Week 17.

Prime-time players: One other complaint -- only two of the Saints' five prime-time games are at home. You can pretty much chalk up a prime-time game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as a victory for the Saints. They've won 13 consecutive home night games, and 16 of their last 17, by an average score of nearly 20 points per game dating back to 2008.

So that means both Green Bay on Sunday night in Week 8 and Baltimore on Monday night in Week 12 are doomed.

Strength of schedule: 23rd, .469 | Vegas over/under : 9.5

Saints Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Week 9: Thursday, Oct. 30, at Carolina, 8:25 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, San Francisco, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 24, Baltimore, 8:30 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Monday, Dec. 15, at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Predictions

Breakdown: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to find out right away if their many offseason moves have helped close the gap in the NFC South. The Bucs play their three division foes (Panthers, Falcons and Saints) within the first five weeks of the schedule, including the opener at home against Carolina. The Bucs have a Week 7 bye (two weeks later than each of the past two seasons) and they should have a good idea of where they stand by then. A fast start could go a long way toward putting the Buccaneers in playoff contention, because the middle of the schedule potentially could be a little soft. But the Bucs need to be above .500 heading into the final four weeks of the season, because they have road games at Detroit and Carolina, followed by home games with Green Bay and New Orleans. Those final four opponents all have realistic chances to be playoff teams, and a cushion by the end of November could go a long way in helping the Bucs get to the postseason.

Complaint department: The Bucs get only one nationally televised game, a Thursday night contest in Atlanta. Fans have a legitimate gripe that the Bucs don't get much national attention. But the reality is the Bucs were 4-12 a year ago. If they are going to become media darlings, they need to win some games to start attracting some attention. That Atlanta game also will be the start of a scheduling rarity. The Bucs will play three straight games on the road. They follow the Atlanta game with a trip to Pittsburgh on Sept. 28, and follow that with an Oct. 5 game in New Orleans.

Lovie's homecoming: The Nov. 23 game at Chicago has a great storyline: Head coach Lovie Smith going against his former team. Smith will downplay the significance of the matchup. But Smith is a proud guy. He might not admit it, but he certainly remembers the Bears fired him after a 10-6 season in 2012. This game will mean a lot to Smith, and he will have the Bucs ready for this one. The bad news is that there is a very real chance this will be a cold-weather game. Nov. 16 at Washington and Dec. 14 at Carolina also could be cold-weather games. Historically, the Bucs have been dismal when playing in cold weather.

Strength of schedule: 19th, .484 | Vegas over/under : 7

Buccaneers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Carolina, 4:25 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, St. Louis, 4:05 p.m.
Week 3: Thursday, Sept. 18, at Atlanta, 8:25 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Washington, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, New Orleans, 1 p.m.

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