If it can be stated that the Carolina Panthers "owned" a team in 2011—and it can—that team would be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Carolina pummelled the Bucs in Week 13 at Tampa 38-19 when Cam Newton ran for three goal-line touchdowns to break Steve Grogan's long-held record for most touchdown runs by a quarterback in a single season.
In the Week 16 NFC South rematch in Charlotte on Christmas Eve, Carolina's offense proved to be even more difficult to contain, making big play after big play in a 48-16 rout by the Panthers.
Newton ran for a career-long 49-yard TD, and he hooked up with Brandon LaFell for a franchise-record 91-yard catch-and-run into the end zone in a game that was more of a celebration in front of the home crowd than it was a contest.
This Week's Game Will Be Closer
The Panthers will visit the Bucs in Tampa this weekend as the 2012 NFL season gets underway, and many Panthers fans with heightened expectations are hoping for the same results from last season.
But as ESPN's College GameDay football analyst Lee Corso likes to say, "Not so fast, my friend!"
The Panthers are 2.5-point favorites on the road with the points total set at 47 this weekend, according to VegasInsider.com, and while I do not endorse wagering on NFL games, a close finish in Tampa is much more likely this weekend than the 25.5 points average victory margin Carolina enjoyed over the Bucs in 2011.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost their final 10 contests following a 4-2 start, were in the midst of a free-fall when the Panthers faced them last season.
2012 is a brand new season with a brand new coach, a defense that is showing improvement and an offense with new weapons at running back and wide receiver.
Here are five reasons this weekend's game between the Panthers and the Bucs will be closer than last season's blowouts.
No. 1: Josh Freeman is Back
In the first game at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs were without their starting quarterback, Josh Freeman.
At 6'6" and 245 pounds, Freeman is built similarly to the Panthers QB, Cam Newton, and his stock was on the rise as an up-and-coming star following the 2010 season, though he took a major step backward in 2011 when he threw six more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (16).
Freeman is entering his fourth NFL season, and if he is going to become a top-10 or even top-15 quarterback as most analysts and fans expected after his first two seasons, he has no choice but to improve.
No. 2: Panthers Adjusting to New Players on Defense
The Carolina Panthers defense will be much improved this season over last when they ranked 28th in total defense, but new players and a new scheme take some time getting used to.
The Panthers defensive line is getting a serious upgrade at the tackle position with Ron Edwards back after missing last season with torn triceps and Dwan Edwards joining the team after the Buffalo Bills released him on the final day of cuts.
Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly, who would have set the NCAA's all-time tackling record had he stayed at Boston College for his senior season, will join James Anderson and Jon Beason in the starting linebackers corps.
They also added to the lineup Haruki Nakamura, an offseason special-teams acquisition from the Ravens, who took over Sherrod Martin's spot as the starting free safety.
Kuechly is a tackling machine, and Nakamura will provide surer footing in the secondary than Carolina had last season.
Carolina is also expected to shift out of its base 4-3 defense into a 3-4 attack and other hybrid looks this season more often than they did in 2011 since they have upgraded their talent level and everyone is healthy.
The Panthers defense had a bend-but-don't-break mentality throughout the preseason that kept several potential scoring drives out of the end zone, but they will have to take a tougher approach to the games now that the regular season is here.
No. 3: Vincent Jackson Gives the Bucs a Downfield Threat
Former San Diego Chargers seem to be popping up everywhere now in the NFC South—and not just in Carolina.
The Buccaneers gave quarterback Josh Freeman a legitimate every-down, big-play receiver when they signed Vincent Jackson in the offseason.
Jackson has been a 1,000-yard receiver in each of the last three complete seasons he has played, including a 60-catch, 1,106-yard season last year in San Diego when he scored nine touchdowns and averaged an eye-popping 18.4 yards per reception.
Carolina will try to line their shutdown cornerback, Chris Gamble, across from Jackson as often as they can, but it is inevitable that he will find himself in a one-on-one matchup with Captain Munnerlyn at some point in the game.
More likely than not, Vincent Jackson will find his way into the end zone at least once this weekend.
No. 4: Jonathan Stewart Still Hobbled
Jonathan Stewart sprained his ankle in the Panthers' third preseason game when Jets safety LaRon Landry shot low on the Panthers star running back to make an open-field tackle.
Stewart had not played or practiced since injuring his ankle, though he is with the team at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and he is expected to play this weekend.
Stewart could have a lighter than normal workload on Sunday if his ankle continues to bother him, but the Panthers backfield is in good hands with DeAngelo Williams taking the majority of the handoffs.
Fullback Mike Tolbert only got five touches in the preseason, but he will be a major factor in "Chud's" offense this season, and he showed that he is capable of playing tailback in the NFL when he spelled the San Diego Chargers' injured Ryan Matthews in 2010.
I would not be surprised if Tolbert is taking some of Stewart's reps at tailback in practice this week.
Whether or not that translates into double-digit carries for Tolbert on Sunday is yet to be seen.
However, as I have often stated since the Panthers winning streak late in 2010, Carolina is at its best when it runs the ball more than it passes.
With half of "Double Trouble" playing on a bum wheel on Sunday, this could end up being a game where Cam Newton's passing output is up above 30 throws, and that could spell trouble for Carolina.
No. 5: Doug Martin is a Stud
If you did not follow the Boise State Broncos football team the past few seasons, then either you are not a fan of college football, or you believe that the game does not exist outside of the SEC.
However, if you did pay attention to the team that played its home games on a blue field in Idaho, then you know about Tampa Bay's rookie running back, Doug Martin.
Despite playing in an offense featuring a Heisman finalist quarterback who passed for more than 3,800 yards in each of the past two seasons in Kellen Moore, Martin actually ran for more than 1,200 yards in both 2010 and 2011.
The 5'9", 223-pound Martin is not the bruiser that LeGarrette Blount is at nearly 250 pounds, but he could cause problems for a Panthers defense that ranked 24th in the NFL at stopping the run in 2011.
Fortunately for Carolina, their run defense should be much improved with improvement in the interior line and Jon Beason's return to the lineup, but Martin will be a factor in this game, and he could prove to be the difference between winning and losing for both teams as they look to get a jump on the NFC South race.
In the end, the Panthers will get the road victory over the Buccaneers this weekend, and I expect it to be a highly entertaining—and potentially high-scoring—game.
I also expect the Panthers to cover the spread, but not in the fashion they did against the Bucs in 2011.
Panthers 31, Bucs 24
Let me know in the comments section if I got it right or wrong.
I will be covering the 4:15 EST game live from Charlotte, North Carolina, where I will be sitting in front of a big screen TV and offering some colorful commentary in a live blog right here on Bleacher Report.
I hope to see you there.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
You can follow me on Twitter @jimmygrappone and be sure to check out my archives for more Panthers articles.
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