The Bucs' 38-3 loss to the Saints on "Sunday Night Football" may have beaten down the notion of Tampa Bay (6-3) as the NFC favorite, but it doesn't change the fact that they remain a dangerous team in position to lock down a high playoff seed. They just need to get Tom Brady and the offense back on track.
When these teams met in Tampa in September, Brady had a solid, if unspectacular, game in part because he wasn't as needed when the Buccaneers raced out to a 21-0 halftime lead. He finished the game 23-of-35 for 217 yards with a touchdown, interception, and fumble.
The Panthers (3-6) have improved since dropping that second straight game to open the year. Their offensive output has been largely the same despite losing Christian McCaffrey, who will miss his seventh game in eight contests, but the defense has gotten much better. Opponents' scoring is down to 23.0 ppg from 32.5, and Carolina has forced a turnover in eight straight games.
Even with the expanded seven-team playoff bracket for each conference — which could reach eight if the NFL is unable to complete its entire 16-game regular season — the Panthers are a long shot at 3-6. However, they remain a dangerous team that the Buccaneers cannot afford to overlook ahead of games against the Rams and Chiefs.
Tampa Bay at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 15 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Buccaneers -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Could the Panthers get their star player back from injury?
No, we're not talking about Christian McCaffrey here, whom Carolina has adequately replaced with Mike Davis. The banged-up player the Panthers would really like to get back is do-it-all defender Jeremy Chinn, who led the team with 67 tackles before missing last week's game with a knee injury.
A second-round pick out of Southern Illinois, Chinn has exceeded all expectations in his rookie campaign. He's listed as a safety on the team's roster, but he has played almost every position — inside and outside linebacker, cornerback in the slot and out wide, free safety, and even a few cameos on the defensive line. He's so hard to replace because he does just about everything — defensive coordinator Phil Snow even said that Chinn's absence made him cut down on the plays he could call. The team is optimistic that he will return, but even if he does, there's no guarantee that he will be at 100 percent.
The Panthers' secondary struggled against the Chiefs, particularly against tight end Travis Kelce, who hauled in a season-best 10 catches for 159 yards. If Chinn is unable to play (or play up to his normal levels), Rob Gronkowski could be a major issue, and the already-thin secondary should have its hands full enough covering Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, et al.
2. Can Tom Brady bounce back against a softer defense?
It's hard to understate how bad last Sunday's game was for Brady. Not only was it the biggest loss of his career, but he also had the third-worst passer rating (40.4) of any game in his career. And the two that were worse came in 2003 and '06. Brady finished 22-of-38 for 209 yards with three interceptions and three sacks.
One major reason for the poor play was his offensive line's inability to stop pressure. He was constantly on the run and having to make rushed or throwaway passes. That should change on Sunday when he goes from facing one of the top pass-rushing teams (New Orleans ranks fourth with a 9.1 percent adjusted sack rate) to one of the worst (Carolina ranks 26th at 4.5 percent).
The Panthers have given up 908 passing yards over their last three games and looked especially porous against the Chiefs last week without Chinn. Leading sack-artist Brian Burns suffered a minor groin injury during Wednesday's practice, and they can ill afford to lose any more key players. This would seem to be the game to get back on track for Brady.
What will be interesting to watch is how he spreads the ball around to his deep receiving corps. There's a lot of mouths to feed — even Evans didn't get a target against New Orleans until under a minute left in the first half. Brown is still shaking the cobwebs off after more than a year out of the NFL, and Godwin is working his way back from finger surgery. It's conceivable that this group will take another step forward, although they'll depend on Brady being on the same page timing-wise, which is what led to his turnover-prone game last week.
3. Will turnovers tell the story of the game again?
Yes, those turnovers are always a key issue, as evidenced by these team's Week 2 matchup. Even without prime Brady, the Bucs prevailed 31-17 in part because they won the turnover battle 4-2 and scored 17 points off Carolina mistakes.
Teddy Bridgewater was responsible for three of those turnovers, with a pair of interceptions coming on errant throws. They dampened what otherwise would have been a big game — 33-of-42 passing for 367 yards — and he's been more accurate as he's built chemistry with his new receivers. Bridgewater has just four interceptions (to 10 touchdowns) in his seven games since and maintains a solid 7.7 yards per pass attempt.
Brady, meanwhile hadn't thrown an interception in the four previous games before his giveaway bonanza, and he was rocking a 17:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio following the Panthers game. Donte Jackson intercepted Brady in Week 2 — one of a team-leading three this season — but that came on a poorly thrown pass under pressure. Carolina will need to bring that pass rush to force more crucial turnovers.
The Panthers have been one of the league's pleasant surprises this season, but they haven't been able to finish. Too many turnovers, too porous of a defense; also bad penalties that put them out of scoring range or hand out first downs. That's not a recipe for success against a veteran team like Tampa Bay. Brady would surely prefer to try to get back on track at home, and there will be plenty of pressure to prove that last week was a fluke, but it's fair to expect a lot of offense in Charlotte.
Prediction: Buccaneers 30, Panthers 23
(Top photo courtesy of buccaneers.com)