Both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers started the 2019 NFL season on a sour note.
The San Francisco 49ers defeated Tampa Bay by the score of 31-17 at Raymond James Stadium. Carolina also lost their opener at home, falling 30-27 to the Los Angeles Rams.
Not only would both the Buccaneers and Panthers like to avoid an 0-2 start to the new season, but they also would like to avoid losing their first NFC South game especially since the New Orleans Saints were the only team in their division to win in Week 1.
Tampa Bay and Carolina will meet for the 38th time on Thursday night with the Panthers holding the all-time series advantage at 23-14. The teams split their two meetings last season with each home team winning on their field. The most recent encounter was Week 13 last season when Jameis Winston's 249 passing yards and two touchdowns helped Tampa Bay earn a 24-17 victory.
Tampa Bay at Carolina
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 12 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Panthers -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Cam Newton improve from Week 1 performance?
In his first regular-season game since his offseason shoulder surgery, Newton's performance did not resemble his usually play.
In the loss to the Rams, Newton was exclusively a pocket-passer as he had only three carries for a total of minus-two (-2) yards, the least in his career. Maybe that shouldn't come as a surprise considering Newton is coming off another surgery, but after the game, both he and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera downplayed they were trying to protect the quarterback.
"Everything felt great," Newton said about his play in Week 1. "A little rusty, just have to get on the same page with everybody. But, all in all, we had our opportunities today, and I think that's the most frustrating part because you feel that this is your time."
Newton and the Panthers offense should have an excellent chance to start fresh on Thursday against a Buccaneers defense that allowed four touchdowns to the 49ers on Sunday.
2. Can the Buccaneers contain Christian McCaffrey?
Newton isn't the only major concern for the Buccaneers as they will also have to find a way to shut down one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Last weekend against the Rams, McCaffrey recorded a total of 209 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 128 yards as McCaffrey also had 10 catches for 81 yards on the day.
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians knows he will have his hands full trying to stop one of the most explosive players in the league.
"He's probably the best dual-back there is in the league right now," Arians said. "I used to think it was David Johnson, but Christian's passed him up. As a receiver, he's a hell of a matchup problem, and as a runner, he's a great runner. They do a good job of having two backs in the game, and you never know which one's going anywhere, and they have a lot of speed."
In his two games against the Buccaneers last season, McCaffrey was able to run for 185 yards and two touchdowns. He also posted 14 receptions for 133 yards, so Tampa Bay will have to aware of where McCaffrey is at all times.
3. Panthers rushing defense
Last year, the Panthers finished 12th in the NFL in rushing defense as they gave up an average of 112.8 yards per game. But against the Rams on Sunday, the Panthers gave up 166 yards on the ground including 97 to Todd Gurley, who averaged nearly seven yards per carry.
Although Tampa Bay doesn't have a Gurley-like player in the backfield, Carolina has to expect the Buccaneers will try to run the ball to keep pressure off of Jameis Winston, who struggled last week against San Francisco. Winston was just 20-for-36 passing for 194 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times and also threw three interceptions, two of which were returned by the 49ers for touchdowns.
Los Angeles used its running game to wear down the Panthers defense. The Rams had the ball for more than 33 minutes, finished with 22 first downs (12 passing, nine rushing, one penalty), and went 9-for-17 on third down. The threat of the passing game forced Carolina into a 3-2-6 alignment, a scheme they hardly played in during the preseason.
The Panthers have switched from employing a 4-3 as their primary look to more of a hybrid 3-4 defense. Barring significant improvement, Tampa Bay's offense doesn't appear to be near as dangerous as Los Angeles' so expect Carolina to stick to more of their base defense to slow down the running game and force Winston to try and beat them.
On a short week, the advantage usually goes to the home team. Thursday's game isn't any different, but if Tampa Bay is going to pull off the upset, Winston will need to perform much better than he has recently.
Winston is 6-17 in his last 23 starts, and he has thrown at least two interceptions in six of his previous 13 games. Winston had an 85.1 passer rating in six road games last season with 10 interceptions and nine touchdowns. Against the 49ers, Winston threw three interceptions against a defense that recorded two all of last season.
Advantage goes to the Panthers and their defense.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Buccaneers 20
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.