Take two. Action. It's Year 2 under head coach Matt Rhule and the Carolina Panthers will enter it having hit reset at the most important position in the NFL. For a second consecutive year, Rhule will try to figure out if his belief in a specific quarterback will pay off in a big way. It didn't pan out with Teddy Bridgewater, who now plays for the Denver Broncos thanks to an offseason trade that followed the primer of dealing with the New York Jets to land former top pick Sam Darnold. There's a lot to like about Darnold, but it's unknown if he can reach his true potential in 2021, although it'll help to have the weapons he has in Charlotte.

He'll be reunited with a familiar face in wide receiver Robby Anderson, and all-world running back slash wide receiver Christian McCaffrey is ready to get back to the field after an injury-ravaged 2020. That sets Darnold up for success in a big way, and the defense stands to be much improved once rookie first-round pick Jaycee Horn finds his NFL wheels -- something that might not take as long as some think. To make things as spicy as possible, the NFL has Darnold and the Panthers set to take on his former team in the regular-season opener, with William Hill Sportsbook listing them as four-point favorites to down the Jets.

Can he do it, though? And use that momentum to build through a challenging schedule? 

Time will tell.

Need a quick betting primer on your favorite NFL team for the 2021 season? Here are links to schedule breakdowns for all 32 clubs.

Key schedule observations

  • Two-game homestand to open season
  • Only one prime-time game (barring flex)
  • Late-season bye (Week 13)

Toughest stretch

  • Week 14 through Week 18

New York Jets

Week 1 - Sunday, Sept. 12
Location: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte)
Time: 1 p.m. ET

Darnold gets his revenge against the team that -- although giving him the nod atop the draft -- stalled his progression before shipping him out of town for Zach Wilson. The rookie QB gets a lesson in NFL defenses in the opener, and a closer look at why McCaffrey got paid the contract he did. 

Prediction: 24-10, Panthers

New Orleans Saints

First meeting: Week 2 - Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte) - Sunday, Sept. 19, 1 p.m. ET
Second meeting: Week 17 - Mercedez-Benz Superdome (New Orleans) - Sunday, Jan. 2, 1 p.m. ET

Is Jameis Winston good enough to win games in the NFL? Yes, he is. But is he also mistake-prone enough to lose games in the NFL? Yes, he is. In only his second game as starter for the Saints (presuming it's not Taysom Hill, which won't change this prediction), the Panthers should be able to move past a familiar NFC South foe in Winston. That won't be the case in Week 17, though.

Week 2 Prediction: 27-24, Panthers
Week 17 Prediction: 35-24, Saints

Houston Texans 

Week 3 - Thursday, Sept. 23
Location: NRG Stadium (Houston)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET

What a mess of an organization the Texans are. That will filter down onto the field and the Panthers should win this one easily, assuming they don't start giving the ball away and allowing Houston to figure out how to win. A three-game win streak to start the season for Darnold is good medicine for Rhule.

Prediction: 28-14, Panthers

Dallas Cowboys

Week 4 - Sunday, Oct. 3 
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Time: 1 p.m. ET

And then comes the buzzsaw. If the Cowboys defense is improved and can match serve with an overpowered offense led by a healthy Dak Prescott along with his two healthy starting tackles, this could be too much for the Panthers to overcome on the road. It is true Darnold gouged the Cowboys in the eye in New York, but he's going to Arlington now and Prescott has a point to prove.

Prediction: 35-14, Cowboys

Philadelphia Eagles

Week 5 - Sunday, Oct. 10 
Location: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte)
Time: 1 p.m. ET

There's nothing like home cooking, and the Panthers will head back to Charlotte to take on the Eagles. That will help them land a win here in their tour of NFC East teams, along with the Eagles having no answer for McCaffrey and Robby Anderson. As long as Jaycee Horn and Co. can contain rookie first-round pick Devonta Smith, and Jalen Hurts is kept in the pocket, they'll have victory well in hand. 

Prediction: 28-17, Panthers

Minnesota Vikings

Week 6 - Sunday, Oct. 17
Location: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte)
Time: 1 p.m. ET 

You can count on the Vikings being a playoff-worthy team in 2021, and easily one of the Panthers' biggest challenges. The problem here for the latter is the multi-weapon approach by Minnesota's offense -- one that will stretch the Panthers far too thin for them to walk away winners in Week 6. Home cooking doesn't solve every problem.

Prediction: 30-20, Vikings

New York Giants

Week 7 - Sunday, Oct. 24 
Location: MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, New Jersey)
Time: 1 p.m. ET

There's some familiarity between these teams on several levels, including the presence of cornerback James Bradberry -- formerly of the Panthers. Some fun headlines will appear in this game, and Darnold versus Daniel Jones will be one of them. Can Carolina steal a win at MetLife Stadium? Sure they can, considering it's where Darnold spent his entire NFL career up to this point.

Prediction: 24-17, Panthers

Atlanta Falcons

First meeting: Week 8 - Mercedez-Benz Stadium (Atlanta) - Sunday, Oct. 31, 1 p.m. ET
Second meeting: Week 14 - Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte) - Sunday, Dec. 12, 1 p.m. ET

They're not in dire straits like the Texans, but the Falcons have a mess of their own to clean up. There's revolves around the future of Julio Jones, and it's unlikely he'll be on the field for them ever again. That makes defeating the Falcons that much simpler, even with the addition of Kyle Pitts. The Panthers won't figure out how in Week 8, though, but will use the film from that loss for Week 14 bliss.

Week 8 Prediction: 21-14, Falcons
Week 14 Prediction: 30-20, Panthers

New England Patriots

Week 9 - Sunday, Nov. 7
Location: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte)
Time:1 p.m. ET 

Well hello there, Cam Newton. This matchup will probably feature Newton taking on his former team -- one he feels tossed him out prematurely -- and he's looking to improve over a disappointing outing in Year 1 under Belichick. The Panthers will do well in this game, but maybe not well enough, because Newton will be out for blood.

Prediction: 27-21, Patriots

Arizona Cardinals

Week 10 - Sunday, Nov. 14
Location: State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET

Adversity has arrived for Darnold and the Panthers, having dropped their last two and now heading to the desert to try and steal one from Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. They'll find out quickly they don't have enough defensive artillery to combat what awaits them in Glendale, and Murray walks them out of State Farm Stadium like they're trespassers. 

Prediction: 38-20, Cardinals

Washington Football Team

Week 11 - Sunday, Nov. 21 
Location: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte)
Time: 1 p.m. ET

The theme of the Panthers' season is familiarity, having already seen Darnold face the Jets and then Newton in Charlotte, and now it's former longtime head coach Ron Rivera marching back into town. Unfortunately for Rivera, he's resting his season on the shoulders of Ryan Fitzpatrick and a devolved offensive line. Panthers take this one from their old ball coach.

Prediction: 27-12, Panthers

Miami Dolphins

Week 12 - Sunday, Nov. 28 
Location: Hard Rock Stadium (Miami)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET

Tua Tagovailoa has a lot of potential and a defense that can carry games, so this should be an entertaining one in South Florida. The Panthers have a more experienced QB though, although Byron Jones and Xavien Howard are awaiting him. This might be a close one that goes to the wire, with Darnold doing just enough -- with the help of McCaffrey -- to land a win. 

Prediction: 28-27, Panthers

Buffalo Bills

Week 15 - TBD
Location: Highmark Stadium (Buffalo, New York)
Time: TBD

Talk about a gauntlet to end the season. The Bills are an entire problem, and the Panthers will find out in 2021. Falling just shy of achieving their mission after a special 2020 campaign, and Josh Allen has proven he's an elite quarterback along with the help of Stefon Diggs and others. Add in the brutally harsh environment of Buffalo (and their mafia) in the winter and, well, good luck. 

Prediction: 40-10, Bills

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First meeting: Week 16 - Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte) - Sunday, Dec. 26, 1 p.m. ET
Second meeting: Week 18 - Raymond James Stadium (Tampa) - Sunday, Jan. 9, 1 p.m. ET

It's not been a dismal season for the Panthers in Darnold's first year, but it also hasn't gone swimmingly. Depending on how things shake out around the conference, and if this overall prediction holds true, they'll likely need to sweep Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers to grab a spot in the expanded playoffs. But if Brady isn't resting in Week 18, it means it's because Tampa Bay needs the win, and that spells sweep and heartbreak for the Panthers.

Week 2 Prediction: 30-24, Bucs
Week 18 Prediction: 35-20, Bucs

Final 2021 record: 8-9