The Carolina Panthers enter 2013 having failed to reach the playoffs again and looking for answers to overcome the obstacles that impeded their pursuit of postseason glory. Head coach Ron Rivera has been granted another year with the team and the "win now" mentality has never been more prevalent. Obviously, there is still the offseason where the NFL Draft and training camp will help shape the team for the new season. When Week 1 kicks off later this September, the Panthers will find themselves in position to either make a name for themselves or falter and underachieve like they did in 2012.
While the Carolina schedule has yet to be released, their opponents have already been determined. The Panthers find themselves with a mixed bag of tough competition and "winnable" games. Of the 13 teams they are pitted against next season, five of them made the playoffs in 2012. They are slated to play against the NFC West, where they have a record of 14-6 against since 2002.
In addition to their non-division games, they will play teams from the AFC East sporting a lifetime record of 7-13. They have yet to defeat the Miami Dolphins in the regular season and with the team still rebuilding, that could change when they play one another later this year.
Carolina lucked out in terms of scheduling as they will play New England, Seattle and one game apiece versus New Orleans and Atlanta at home. Aside from their annual trips to Atlanta and New Orleans, the Panthers only have two other games which can be considered tough road trips. Those games will have them playing San Francisco and Minnesota.
One thing Carolina proved in 2012 was their ability to compete with any team they faced. With the exception of their blowout losses to the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos, the Panthers were in every game they played this year. However, the Panthers will need to dominate the competition if they are to entertain playoff dreams in January 2014.
Their keys to success depend on their division record because a split (like this past season) may not be enough regardless if they finish above .500 against their non-division foes. Their schedule seems a little softer compared to 2012, but it's not without some marquee names that could define their season if successful.
Which brings us to...
League and Media Attention
There is no doubt the drafting of Cam Newton has elevated the media status of the Carolina Panthers. The young quarterback has given Carolina a little more recognition than in year's past and provided them with a little bit of representation outside the local markets.
However, in 2013, Carolina can achieve similar recognition through their play on the field. That is if they win those games against established powerhouses (New England and New Orleans) as well as those up and coming teams (San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle). A lot of stock can be weighed with any team who makes the playoffs and the quality of schedule tends to be the most scrutinized.
Not only does Carolina have a chance to lock horns and perhaps upset proven teams, they could possibly do so on national television. New England is one team that enjoys such exposure as the majority of their games are either late Sunday games or in the prime time arena. Depending on the schedule, a Sunday or Monday night game against the Patriots could be very inviting.
One thing is for certain; the Panthers must win in 2013 and make the playoffs.
Win or Get Out of Town
Ron Rivera was able to keep his job because he finished the season with a four game winning streak and was able to convince owner Jerry Richardson that he could guide Carolina to the playoffs. His job is simple: win.
If Carolina falls short of anything but a winning record and a playoff berth, Rivera will be out as head coach and the Panthers will be looking for his replacement. While his seat cooled off considerably in December, it will be red hot once again when the regular season commences in September.
The Panthers have the players and talent to win. Their ability to close out games will be more important than ever as it was their undoing in 2012. If they are unable to win and miss the playoffs, it will create a level of frustration amongst fans and team officials never before seen.
There are teams who take those first steps towards greatness. They shed their previous established identities as being mediocre or losers and turn their fortunes around. Teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals are prime examples. Carolina could be the next team do so but they will need to learn from their past mistakes and establish a culture of winning and success.