The Carolina Panthers (3-3) are on the road to face their struggling NFC South rival, the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-6), tonight in the NFL Network's Week 8 Thursday Night Football matchup, and I want to scream to Ron Rivera, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly at the top of my lungs, "Look out! It's a trap!"
As someone who has followed the Panthers more closely than any other team for the past three seasons, it is difficult to get my hopes up for a franchise that has not had a winning record at any point since finishing the 2008 regular season at 12-4.
The Panthers are favored by as much as a touchdown, but do not be surprised if a game that should be a blowout turns out to be much closer than expected.
Vetoed in 2012
The last time the Panthers visited Tampa, in Week 1 of the 2012 season, they were expected to win.
Carolina owned Tampa Bay in 2011, outscoring the Bucs 86-35 in a pair of lopsided wins, and the team had momentum after winning four of their final six games the previous year.
Unfortunately, the Panthers came out flat, failed to generate a pass rush and were held to a franchise-tying low 10 yards rushing on 13 carries in a disappointing 16-10 loss.
Granted, there were extenuating circumstances that affected the Panthers' preparation a season ago.
Instead of preparing for their season opener by practicing at their own facilities and sleeping in their own beds in Charlotte, the Panthers left town six days ahead of the game to avoid the media circus that was the 2012 Democratic National Convention being held the same week in their hometown.
Though the President of the United States is an avowed Chicago Bears fan, his plans to speak at a Thursday night rally at the Panthers' Bank of America Stadium helped the Buccaneers and handicapped Carolina by throwing the Panthers off of their normal routine.
Reasons for Optimism in 2013
With no big conventions in Charlotte this week—my apologies to the Critical Facilities Summit & Exhibition—there are plenty of reasons for Panther fans to be optimistic heading into their Week 8 matchup against the Bucs.
Carolina has won three of its past four games after losing a pair of winnable games to start the season 0-2.
The new "Riverboat" Ron Rivera seems to have hit his stride as a risk-taker who is finally able and willing to make the gutsy call that turns the tide in his team's favor instead of merely playing the odds.
And the Panthers defense is the strongest it has been since midway through the John Fox era.
However, at 3-3 overall and two games back of the first-place New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, any dose of Panthers optimism is best served with a side of caution and a helping of trepidation.
Tale of the Tape
Heading into Week 8, Carolina has the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense (13.8 points per game), Cam Newton has completed more than 80 percent of his passes in the last two games combined, and the Panthers have outscored their opponents in wins by an average of nearly 27 points per win.
On the opposite sidelines, the Buccaneers ditched their starting quarterback, Josh Freeman, after four games, lost starting running back Doug Martin to a shoulder injury in a Week 7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons and are ranked dead last in Matt Miller's Week 8 NFL Power Rankings.
The Panthers are finally hitting their stride because the coaching staff is better prepared, Cam Newton is playing at the highest level of his career, and the defense is an elite unit.
Carolina's offense is less complicated under new offensive coordinator Mike Shula than it ever was under Rob Chudzinski, and it may also prove to be more effective in the second half of the season.
The last time Carolina played on a Thursday night, it was shellacked 36-7 by the New York Giants last season at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
The Panthers were flat in that game just like they were in Week 1 against the Bucs.
Carolina has only had one "flat" performance in its first six games of the season, a 22-6 road loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5.
The best possible scenario for head coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers—2-14 in games decided by less than a touchdown the past three seasons—could come to fruition if they are able to win a close game on the road.
As much as my instincts caution against predicting a blowout win, Carolina will win easily and cover the spread simply because Greg Schiano's Tampa Bay team is in that much disarray.
When the local paper calls the current coach's regime "among the worst in Bucs' history," that is saying something.
Prediction: Carolina Panthers 33, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17
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