By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó Getting shunned by national television and the steady diet of 1 p.m. games should come as no surprise for the Carolina Panthers.
That Carolina has the NFLís toughest schedule based on last yearís records is a bit of a head-scratcher after being the leagueís worst team in 2010.
Blame it on playing in the difficult NFC South.
The NFL schedule released Tuesday night ó which assumes the labor dispute ends and no games are missed ó has new coach Ron Rivera making his debut at the Arizona Cardinals on Sept 11 in a matchup of clubs with the first and fifth overall picks in next weekís draft.
The 4:15 p.m. start marks Carolinaís only game that wonít begin at 1 p.m. and a rare game against a team with a losing record a year ago.
The Panthers will host Green Bay (10-6) a week later in the home opener, the first of nine games against teams that won at least 10 games in 2010. After hosting Jacksonville (8-8) in Week 3, the Panthers will visit the Bears (11-5) in Riveraís return to Chicago, where he played and coached.
Carolina opens NFC South play at home against New Orleans (11-5) on Oct. 9 and visits fellow division rival Atlanta (13-3) a week later.
The combined record of Carolinaís opponents in 2010 was 142-114. Not a great scenario for a team that went 2-14 a year ago in coach John Foxís final season.
ěWe play in one of the most difficult divisions in the league and we will try to meet that challenge,î Rivera said in a statement. ěFour of the first six games are against teams that were in the playoffs last season, which sets a tone for the season.î
The Panthers wonít have to travel for four straight weeks starting with home games against Washington on Oct. 23 and Minnesota a week later followed by the Week 9 bye on Nov. 6 and a home game against Tennessee.
Carolina will then make up for playing six of its first nine at home by going on its first three-game road trip since 1998 with games at Detroit, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay.
The Panthers return home Dec. 11 to face Atlanta before visiting Houston on Dec. 18.
The only game not on Sunday will be Saturday, Dec. 24, when the Panthers host Tampa Bay. Most NFL games will be on Saturday that week to avoid playing on Christmas.
Carolina finishes at New Orleans on Jan. 1, marking the second straight year the Panthers end the season on the road.
The schedule could be altered if the lockout drags through the summer and affects the start of the regular season.
The Associated Press