The two youngest teams in the NFL meet in Charlotte as 0–1 Carolina (the youngest) faces 1–0 Tampa Bay (the second-youngest) in this renewal of an underrated NFL rivalry. Both quarterbacks are dinged up. Bucs starter Josh Freeman showed some guts last week, playing through a broken thumb on his throwing hand as he directed a 17–14 Tampa Bay win over Cleveland. Freeman’s thumb limits some of the kinds of throws he can make, but he’s a big, mobile quarterback who has his teammates’ confidence. Carolina’s Matt Moore is coming off a concussion he suffered in the Panthers’ 31–18 loss to the New York Giants. Moore fumbled twice and threw three interceptions in that game — all of them in the Giants’ end zone — to bring back bad memories for Panther fans of the types of games that Jake Delhomme used to play at his worst. Moore should play in this one — he was back practicing by mid-week after passing a series of neurological tests — but rookie Jimmy Clausen will take over if Moore can’t go at the last minute.
Keys for the Panthers
• Run, run, run. The Panthers were No. 3 in the NFL in 2009 in rushing yardage, and Tampa Bay was dead last in the amount it gave up. Carolina loves to keep the ball on the ground against the Bucs, having averaged 241 rushing yards per game the last three times these teams have met. Not surprisingly, the Panthers won all three of those games. But the “Double Trouble” combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart was mostly held in check against the Giants. Expect the Panthers to get back to those basics Sunday.
• Defensive line pressure. After a superb preseason, the Panthers’ defense gave up 31 points to the Giants and didn’t get a single sack out of a defensive line that seemed to miss Julius Peppers. Getting pressure on Freeman will be a huge key.
Keys for the Buccaneers
• The Bucs get back elite cornerback Aqib Talib after a one-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. That will help a defense that has sometimes struggled in the past to cover Steve Smith. Expect Talib to shadow Smith for much of the game. Tampa Bay’s defense is on a bit of a roll — it held Cleveland scoreless in the second half of the Bucs’ 17—14 Week 1 win and got a huge interception from Ronde Barber that set up a touchdown.
• Cadillac Williams (22 carries, 75 yards against Cleveland) will be a big factor against the Panthers. Since Carolina will be trying to grind its way to long, clock-chewing drives, the Bucs need to counter that by using their own rushing game to wear down a Panther defense that got tired in the second half against the Giants.
Both teams have their problems, but coach John Fox has had a lot of success game-planning against the Bucs over the past three games. Carolina’s double-barreled rushing attack of Williams and Stewart will generate 35-to-40 carries and a win for the Panthers.