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The Panthers' offense will dominate the Buccaneers' defense in the running game. The Bucs will be starting a rookie at one linebacker spot in Lavonte David, and he is bound to make a bunch of mistakes. That will be magnified against an offense like the Panthers' unit that thrives on misdirection and has so many different blocking schemes.
If the Bucs can put the Panthers in 3rd-and-long situations, I can see them having some success, however, with an improved secondary led by rookie safety Mark Barron. But if the Bucs choose to only rush three linemen like they did quite a bit in the preseason, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is going to make them pay big-time.
The Buccaneers' offense will have a chance to carry the team in this game. Even with Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph lost for the season, the Bucs have a chance to do well running the ball with the running back tandem of rookie first-round pick Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount.
I don't see anyone in the Panthers' secondary who can match up well with Vincent Jackson, either. He will have opportunities to hit them for big chunks of yardage all day.
Then there is tight end Dallas Clark, who still knows how to get open with the best of them, and he has some great hands.
Unfortunately, I don't think those weapons will matter much because Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman still isn't consistent enough playing the position.
One of the most frustrating things about watching Freeman is that he just about refuses to run when a defense gives him the opportunity to do so. It makes no sense when almost every other quarterback in the league these days runs when the defense gives them the chance.
Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers had phenomenal years throwing the ball last season, but when they see man-to-man defense, they don't hesitate to run if nobody is open.
Freeman, on the other hand, will throw into triple coverage at times before running for an easy first down.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson will be pressuring Freeman all day, while rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly will make a ton of tackles and pounce when Freeman stares down his receivers in the passing game.
The Panthers won't shut down the Buccaneers' offense, but they will make just enough plays to minimize the Bucs' scoring.
This game will be pretty close all the way to the end, and Freeman will make some plays along the way. But the Bucs will eventually lose because he just won't make enough of them.
Prediction: Panthers over Buccaneers