ESPN’s Monday Night Football will air its biggest game of the season so far Dec. 8, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to the Carolina Panthers for a titanic clash that could very well determine the 2008 NFC South champion.
Both teams enter the game with a 9-3 record. The Buccaneers are coming off a solid performance at home to New Orleans, where they were able to hold quarterback Drew Brees to under 300 passing yards and intercept him three times. Tampa Bay improved to 6-1 since Jeff Garcia regained the starting quarterback job.
The Buccaneers are a tie-breaker ahead of the second-place Panthers, who had a tough time overcoming the Green Bay Packers last week in a 35-31 win. Running back DeAngelo Williams scored four rushing touchdowns and the rejuvenated Jake Delhomme added another on the ground. Receiver Steve Smith is hitting form at the right time, taking a huge 54-yard reception to the Packers 1-yard line, beating two Green Bay defenders to make the grab.
The Tampa Bay defense will have to perform at its fourth-ranked level to keep these threats under wraps.
The Buccaneers will win if...
Jeff Garcia plays well
The Bucs’ hopes depend on the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, who has completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,902 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions this season. If the Buccaneers' offensive line plays as well as it can do (only 11 sacks surrendered) then Garcia can make things happen. The Panthers must be wary of Garcia’s feet, as he scrambled for 42 yards on seven attempts last weekend.
The defense stays hot
Tampa Bay is famous for its defense, and it has been the backbone of the Bucs' success once again this year. The Panthers have surrendered only 18 sacks this season, so the Buccaneers will have to turn up the pressure on Delhomme to force turnovers. Tampa has 17 interceptions and six fumbles on the year, but more will be needed to stop the rugged Panther offense.
If the Buccaneers' defense can hold another run game in check (only one team, Kansas City, have had a 100-yard back against the Bucs) then Carolina will have to rely on their aerial attack. Tampa Bay is ranked third in the league against the pass, so the Panthers must be wary of taking to the air. The Bucs intercepted Delhomme three times in the week six matchup.
The Buccaneers' will lose if...
They can't find a running game of their own
Tampa's rushing attack has been spluttering at times. Warrick Dunn has been very good, but isn't an ideal bruiser. The loss of leading rusher Earnest Graham to IR hurts. With Graham out, the task falls on Dunn and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. Proving he is back to full fitness, Williams chipped in with an 8-yard touchdown last week against New Orleans’ He may yet be crucial down the stretch.
Their road inconsistencies continue
The Buccaneers struggled mightily in the first half away to Kansas City, a team fighting for wins. The Bucs are 3-3 on the road, and it took big comebacks and overtime field goals in Chicago and Kansas City to win. The Bucs were expected to crush the then Romo-less Dallas Cowboys, but could only stutter offensively and commit multiple penalties in a close defeat. The Buccaneers will not be taking Carolina lightly, as the division crown is on the line—but, judging by the Bucs’ road play this season, don’t be surprised to see the Panthers score first.
Whilst this former bad-boy receiver spent last year on the couch, he is having a Pro Bowl-caliber year this season. Bryant has excelled in the protracted absence of Joey Galloway, as both the ideal possession receiver and deep-threat.
The Buccaneers defense needs to make stops and force turnovers to get Garcia and the offense on the field. If Garcia can find his receivers early, then the hostile Charlotte crowd will quiet, and the Bucs can grind the game out.
If the Buccaneers fail to apply pressure to Delhomme and danger backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart room, then the likes of Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad will hurt the Bucs.
The Bucs last battled Carolina in Charlotte on a Monday Night in 2006. The Buccaneers were crushed that night, and will be determined to not let that happen again. Tampa Bay has won the last three games against the Panthers now, and will hope to make it a season sweep on national television.
Buccaneers 23, Panthers 20
For the Carolina Panthers view, check out Panther community leader Austin Penny's response.