After clinching third place in the NFC South by virtue of their 48-16 blowout of Tampa Bay, the Panthers' 2012 schedule is pretty well set.
Besides divisional games, the NFC South will be paired with the NFC East and AFC West next season. The Panthers also will face the third-place teams from the NFC North (Chicago) and NFC West (the loser of Sunday's Arizona-Seattle game).
Here's how it breaks down:
Home games: Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Dallas, New York Giants, Arizona/Seattle loser, San Diego, Kansas City.
Away games: Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Oakland, Denver.
(The NFL modified its formula for West Coast travel, beginning with the 2010 season, so teams wouldn't have to make two trips to the West Coast. The league paired Oakland with Denver, and San Diego with Kansas City, for teams facing the AFC West. The Panthers' AFC West destinations for next season were based on this year's schedule for NFC North teams, which played the AFC West.)
A couple of observations:
The Chicago trip will mark the third time the Panthers have faced DE Julius Peppers since Peppers left Carolina as a free agent. Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will get a chance to play his hometown Philadelphia Eagles and exact a little revenge on Andy Reid, who fired McDermott last offseason.
Cam Newton will go head-to-head with The Golden Calf of Bristol, his former teammate at Florida, and the Eagles' Michael Vick, whom Newton admired growing up in Atlanta when Vick played for the Falcons.
And of course, the Panthers will match up against former coach John Fox for the first time.
The full schedule will be released later. Given Newton's success and popularity – and the innovative nature of the Panthers' offense – expect to see a couple of prime-time, Sunday and Monday night games.
I'm tired of playing Arizona and Chicago.