Thanks to an uninspired performance against the Falcons in Atlanta last week, any dreams the Carolina Panthers (14-1) had of a perfect season have come to an abrupt end. The Panthers must now re-focus and set their sights on locking up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. Standing in their way is a Tampa Bay team that is hungry for a win after dropping three straight games and four of its last five.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' (6-9) playoff aspirations have long since gone to the wayside, but there is nothing that they want more than to finish the season on a high note in Charlotte against the top dog in their division. Lovie Smith’s Buccaneers also have a shot at redemption after losing an ugly game to the Panthers in Week 4. The only problem is that they could be stepping into a hornets nest on Sunday. Ron Rivera has no intentions of resting his starters this week with the top seed in the NFC bracket and the opportunity to stay at home throughout the postseason there for the taking. And there also should be no question about motivation for Carolina either after last week's uninspiring performance.
Tampa Bay at Carolina
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Carolina -10
Three Things to Watch
Turnovers have been a problem for Tampa Bay throughout the season. The Buccaneers' 25 turnovers are the ninth most in the NFL. They are also at minus-four (-4) in turnover margin for the season. On the opposite end of that spectrum are the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers lead the NFL with 36 takeaways and an impressive plus-19 (+19) turnover margin on the year. Five of those takeaways came courtesy of the Tampa Bay offense in Week 4. A game that the Buccaneers probably would have won if not for a mistake-filled day.
Tampa Bay has committed five turnovers in its last two games, both losses. Doug Martin lost two fumbles just last week and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston gifted the Panthers with four interceptions back in Week 4. If the Buccaneers have any hopes of getting the win this time around, they must avoid costly turnovers against the ball-hawking Panthers. A tall order, especially on the road, against an angry Carolina defense that has feasted on turnovers all season.
2. A Big Workload for Doug Martin
The Buccaneers are 5-1 this season when Martin has 20 or more carries. The Bucs are just 1-8 when Martin has run the ball fewer than 20 times. So is there any question that Martin should see a lot of touches this afternoon? His 1,354 rushing yards place him second in the NFL entering the last game of the regular season, just 64 yards behind current leader Adrian Peterson. A big day for Martin, coupled with a bad day for Peterson, could translate into Martin’s first rushing title, providing further incentive to get him the football.
Martin will be looking to rebound after being benched in last week’s loss to the Bears following two costly fumbles. He will certainly have his work cut out for him against a stingy Panther run defense. That said, Martin has already proven that he can have success against the Panthers. He is one of just two players (Rashad Jennings, Week 15) to rush for more than 100 yards against Carolina all season.
3. Carolina Offense vs. Tampa Bay Defense
In spite of the fact that Carolina scored 37 points against Tampa Bay in Week 4, the Bucs did manage to limit the Panther offense to just 244 total yards on the day. Tampa Bay also held Cam Newton to his lowest passing total all season. Newton connected on just 11 of his 22 passes for 124 yards in that game.
In fairness, five Tampa Bay turnovers made for any easy day for a Panthers offense that did not require much from their star signal-caller back on Oct. 4. That probably won’t be the case for this matchup. The Buccaneers' ninth-ranked defense has been surprisingly stingy this season, giving up 338 yards per game. They have been especially greedy against the run, limiting the opposition to 99 yards per contest. A stat that does not bode well for Carolina since Jonathan Stewart has already been ruled out because of a foot injury.
Despite holding Newton to a season low in the first meeting, Tampa Bay's defense can be exploited through the air. The Bucs rank in the middle of the pack (17th) in passing yards allowed, and only five teams have allowed more touchdown passes than Tampa Bay's 29. Newton will be poised to return to MVP form after a lackluster performance last week.
Tampa Bay hasn’t exactly been playing its best football of late, and a matchup against a spurned Carolina team on the road does not bode particularly well. Jameis Winston will need to play one of his better games of the season. That will not be easy without injured WR Vincent Jackson, who torched the Panthers in their previous meeting. If the Buccaneers can prevent costly turnovers and establish a solid running game early with Doug Martin and Charles Sims, they may stand a chance, but that is a tall order.
The key for the Panthers is simple. They must get past the fact that they can no longer go undefeated and re-establish the fire that enabled them to dominate for 14 consecutive games. That starts with an elite defense that seems to have grown somewhat complacent in recent weeks. Cam Newton also needs to re-energize a Carolina offense that fell flat last week. The Panthers are clearly the superior team in this matchup, and there is far too much at stake for them to dwell on what could have been. It seems like a safe bet that Carolina will put forth its best effort against the Bucs at home with the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs still well within their grasp.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Buccaneers 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.