Panthers schedule, 2021 NFL odds: Sam Darnold's Carolina debut naturally Week 1 vs. Jets; lone prime-time game Week 3

The Sam Darnold Era begins with the Carolina Panthers in 2021. Can the team salvage the former Jets QB?
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The Carolina Panthers and New York Jets finished a combined 7-25 last season, but their Week 1 matchup in Charlotte is one of the most intriguing to kick off the 2021 NFL season because new Panthers QB Sam Darnold faces the Jets team that gave up on him. Carolina opened as a 4-point favorite on the NFL odds. The schedule overall looks pretty manageable for the Panthers -- their lone prime-time game is Week 3 in Houston -- until the end as four of their six matchups against 2020 playoff teams are in the final four games. 

The Panthers were all-in to trade for Houston Texans quarterback and former "local" Clemson star Deshaun Watson this offseason, but Houston's trade demands and then Watson's off-the-field issues ended any chances of a deal. So, the Panthers instead opted to trade for Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft, in hopes of salvaging his career. William Hill Sportsbook gives Carolina an Over/Under win total of 7.5 this year with the added 17th game, while the SportsLine Projection Model forecasts the Cats for 6.7 victories.

Much was new with the Panthers in 2020, including QB Teddy Bridgewater, top wideout Robby Anderson, head coach Matt Rhule, offensive coordinator Joe Brady and plenty more. While Anderson (95 catches, 1,096 yards, three TDs) had a fine season, Bridgewater was average at best, star running back Christian McCaffrey was limited to just three games and the defense was terrible. The result: a 5-11 record and the franchise's third straight losing season.

This offseason, the Panthers said goodbye to the likes of wideout Curtis Samuel and defensive tackle Kawaan Short and largely focused on the offensive line and defense in free agency in adding the likes of center Pat Elflein, tackle Cameron Erving, edge rusher Hasson Reddick, linebacker Denzel Perryman and cornerback AJ Bouye. At No. 8 overall in the draft, Carolina took South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn. 

Clearly, though, everything revolves around Darnold – Carolina is so all-in, the team already has picked up his fifth-year rookie option for 2022, which is fully guaranteed under the new CBA rules. The Panthers gave the Jets a 2021 sixth-round pick and a second and fourth-rounder in 2022. Darnold is reunited with the former Jet Anderson. In fact, Darnold's 11 career passing touchdowns to Robby Anderson are his most to any receiver.

Overall, Darnold has more career interceptions (39) than games played (38), but he got no help from his former coaching staff with the Jets. Brady, meanwhile, is considered one of the bright offensive minds in the game. There's really nowhere go to but up with Darnold over Bridgewater, who while competent was 0-8 last season in games in which he had the ball on the final possession with a chance to tie or win. Bridgewater has since been traded to Denver.

The Panthers' 2021 schedule is ranked as the 26th-toughest in the league as their 17 opponents – visiting the Texans is the 17th game -- were a combined 128-143-1 last season.

Carolina Panthers trends/William Hill Sportsbook odds

  • 2020 record: 5-11 (9-7 against the spread, 7-8-1 Over/Under)
  • 2021 strength of schedule rank: 26th (opponents' combined winning percentage of .472)
  • 2021 Over/Under win total: 7.5
  • SportsLine Projection Model forecasted wins: 6.7
  • Odds to win Super Bowl 56: +5000
  • To win NFC: +2200
  • To win NFC South: +750
  • To make playoffs: No -260, yes +210
  • NFL MVP odds: Christian McCaffrey +4000, Sam Darnold +10000

Carolina Panthers Schedule

Week 1 vs. New York Jets: Sam Darnold faces his former team if healthy; Cats 2-0 SU in past two in series

Week 2 vs. New Orleans Saints: Carolina dropped fourth straight at home in series last year 33-7

Week 3 at Houston Texans (TNF): Added 17th opponent; Panthers on 3-0 ATS & SU run in series overall

Week 4 at Dallas Cowboys: Teams have split past 10 ATS overall, but Panthers are 2-0 ATS in past two

Week 5 vs. Philadelphia Eagles: Last meeting was 2018 in Philly and Panthers were 21-17 upset winners

Week 6 vs. Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota was -3 last November at home and beat Cats 28-27

Week 7 at New York Giants: New York has dropped past three overall in series but is 2-1 ATS

Week 8 at Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta's five-game home SU & ATS win streak in series ended last year in 23-16 loss

Week 9 vs. New England Patriots: Panthers are 6-1 ATS in series including Super Bowl matchup

Week 10 at Arizona Cardinals: Panthers are 5-0 SU & ATS in past five in series overall after 31-21 upset last year

Week 11 vs. Washington Football Team: Carolina was -1 when it won 20-13 at Washington in 2020

Week 12 at Miami Dolphins: Fins are 5-1 ATS all-time in series but Carolina won and covered last in 2017

Week 13 BYE

Week 14 vs. Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta is 3-0 SU & ATS in past three in Charlotte following 25-17 win in 2020

Week 15 at Buffalo Bills: Carolina 2-4-1 ATS in series but won last in 2017 (push)

Week 16 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Panthers are 0-2 SU & ATS in past two at home following 46-23 loss last year

Week 17 at New Orleans Saints: Panthers have covered past four in Big Easy including playoffs (1-3 SU)

Week 18 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Carolina was 31-17 loser last year in Tampa but is 7-3 ATS in past 10 there

Where does every player appear in our 2021 Fantasy football rankings? And which rookie quarterback will provide shocking value? Join SportsLine right now to get 2021 Fantasy football rankings, all from the model that simulated the entire season 10,000 times.

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