However unstoppable the Panthers have looked this season, their streak has been broken, and now the Buccaneers will be looking to compound Carolina’s frustration at losing their shot at a perfect season by scuppering their chance at homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. There’s not much to say about the Panthers this year that hasn’t already been said. At 14 – 1, they are in the driving seat for the NFC #1 Seed, but they will still be looking to execute in their final regular season game of the season with the Arizona Cardinals breathing down their necks. From the #1 overall pick to not terrible, but could do better. Watching Jameis Winston win the admiration of the NFL, and Doug Martin reminding us that he’s still every inch an NFL running back have made the Bucs fun to watch for most of the year. At 6 – 9, however this game goes, it’s a definite improvement on last season’s mark.
Three keys to the game:
Staying ahead of the Chains
Carolina’s defense is good. Very good. At all levels, they have tha ability to dominate. If Tampa Bay want a chance to win this game they need to avoid getting into 2nd and 3rd and long by getting the ball into Doug Martin’s hands to let him make plays.
Tampa Bay are giving up nearly 10 penalties per game this season, and against arguably the best team in the league, that just won’t do. Carolina are good enough to win games on their own, without needing their opponents to beat themselves. Yards will be hard to come by for the Bucs, and if they can’t clean their act up they could be even harder.
Stopping the Run
Both teams come into this game with strong running games. Doug Martin has been something else this year. Second in the NFL behind only the indomitable Adrian Peterson, Tampa Bay will be looking to get the ball moving with Martin, and Kawann Short and Thomas Davis will be looking to stop him. The Bucs’ defense is 10th in rushing yards allowed this year, but with the danger of Cam Newton with both his arm and his legs, they will need to stay focused in order to stop the Panthers’ runners.
Key Matchup: Tampa Bay vs. Themselves
It seems that in key moments this season, the Buccaneers have made mental errors, committing turnovers and penalties, which have cost them the opportunity to be fighting for a playoff spot going into this stage of the season. Although the roster is on the young side, Lovie Smith will expect them to show some development to go into the offseason on a positive note.
It’s hard to look past the Panthers winning this, and winning handsomely. Cam puts on a masterclass, throwing for 320+, 3 TDs, and a rushing TD to go with 50+ yards on the ground.