Data Points: Panthers take another pounding

The announcement of the 2011 NFL schedule Tuesday night gave everyone a glimpse of what might be this season … which, after all the talk about labor and the draft, is a refreshing change of pace.

The annual schedule release is always highly anticipated, as players and fans alike get a chance to see what will be the most winnable games, the toughest road trips, and ultimately, what chance they will have of getting to the playoffs.

If those facets of the new schedule are the mustard and pickle relish, then the meat and potatoes is strength of schedule, which is the measure of how tough a team’s sledding might be based on its opponents’ 2010 won-loss record. While it might not be the be-all, end-all, strength of schedule is a major reason why some good teams might go 8-8. Conversely, 5-win teams from this past season can ride a cream-puff schedule to doubling their win total.

Surprisingly, the club with the hardest journey — based on how its opponents fared in 2010 — is the Panthers. New coach Ron Rivera inherits the team with the NFL’s worst record in 2010 (2-14), but the schedule is doing his squad no favors. On the other hand, Ken Whisenhunt and the Cardinals might be able to greatly improve on last season’s 5-11 mark by virtue of having a soft pillow on which to land.

Here’s a look at all the NFC teams and their 2011 strength of schedule:

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the AFC strength of schedule.

— Elliot Harrison

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