Last week, the Carolina Panthers received their 2013 schedule along with the rest of the league. Unfortunately for them, they draw the hardest schedule among the 32 teams in the NFL. While this can be frustrating for the fans of the Panthers, it should validate them as a legitimate contender or expose them as being a team in transition.
The Panthers haven't tasted the postseason since the conclusion of the 2008 season, and their fanbase is becoming restless. Not only do they need to prove to everyone around the league they belong among the best, but they will find themselves playing for the security of Ron Rivera's job.
Yes, many have speculated that the third-year coach needs to guide Carolina to a playoff berth in order to remain at his post, but playing the division rivals, the NFC West and AFC East won't make that task an easy one.
If Rivera and his Panthers are to make a statement, it needs to come in Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks, who are projected to make a deep playoff run in 2013.
However, if the Panthers finish with eight or more wins, he may be able to keep his job, and a postseason appearance would greatly help his cause. No coach in the history of the franchise has been retained longer than three years without making the playoffs (George Seifert, 1999-01).
If the Panthers finish with eight wins, the losses will most likely be taken into account based on whether or not Carolina blew a lead or made mistakes resulting in its opponent winning the game.
At 8-8, there is a lot of gray area as the .543 strength of schedule could work into Rivera's favor. Anything less, the Panthers will be conducting job interviews for a head coach opening next winter.
Team Can Compete Now
Many viewed the Panthers as a playoff contender or a dark-horse division champion prior to the start of the 2012 season. Carolina got off to a horrible start with a combination of lackluster play, key mistakes and failure to execute on both sides of the ball.
That all changed during the second half of last season for the Panthers as they went 6-3 to close out the year.
It is that kind of play that gives the Carolina fans hope for the future. If anything, this year's docket of games should reveal the kind of team the Panthers really are—legitimate contenders or a young team still searching for its identity.
While their first half of games is relatively easy compared to the overall schedule, they need to have a good showing against Seattle. A loss will most likely force the football universe to turn a blind eye to them the rest of the way.
It may not be fair to be tagged with the hardest set of games following a year that didn't produce a playoff berth, but the Panthers can take comfort in knowing that their division rivals will be playing the same teams from the NFC West and AFC East.
Current Roster Can Prove Itself
There have been critics and supporters of many Carolina players. From Cam Newton to Luke Kuechly, it seems as they haven't been given the kind of respect they deserve despite good play. Kuechly's Pro Bowl snub being a great example.
Newton has put together two quality seasons throwing for over 3,000 yards in his first two years and cutting down on his turnovers. Steve Smith turned in another year with 1,000 receiving yards. Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Kuechly have played stellar defense, yet are overlooked.
Going against top teams means going against elite players, and this season can be the one where the Panthers' best can show they can hang with league's best.
A game that sees Johnson and Hardy constantly harassing Tom Brady gets people watching; the same doesn't happen with Josh Freeman. Quality of game, with a quality win, earns warranted attention. The potential for it is very much alive for Carolina in 2013.
The Panthers control their own destiny going into the new season.
They have a huge burden with what this season's success or failure means. They don't want to enter the last few weeks of the season playing for pride but rather for postseason ranking. They don't want to be a footnote when Week 17 wraps up in late December.
While the schedule isn't favorable, if the Panthers are able to close out games and find ways to win, they will be looked at with more respect and will be a team people will be watching over the next few years. A failure to do so means returning to square one and starting over.
After four frustrating seasons, failure is not an option.