The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will meet Monday night in the week 14 installment of ESPN’s Monday Night Football. This game is the biggest of the year for both teams, as they remain tied atop the NFC South standings for the second straight week.
The Buccaneers control their own destiny, as they have the tiebreaker against Carolina thanks to their 27-3 romp of the Panthers in week six. A Tampa Bay victory would mean that the Panthers, with the Broncos, Giants, and Saints still left on their schedule, would have to finish a full game ahead of the Bucs. The Bucs, then, would have the Falcons, Chargers, and Raiders left on the slate, to win the division.
The Panthers are coming off of an emotional win at Lambeau Field last Sunday, a game that saw them squander an 11-point half time lead and eventually come back, in classic ‘Cardiac Cats’ fashion, to pull off the victory.
DeAngelo Williams rushed for a career high and franchise record four touchdowns and Jake Delhomme was smart and efficient with the football, making big plays when he had to. A sore spot for the Panthers was their usually tough defense which allowed 31 points and was exploited by Aaron Rodgers all afternoon.
The Buccaneers are also coming off of a big win. Tampa Bay hung on to beat the New Orleans Saints in a game that the Saints hung around until late when a Matt Bryant field goal was the difference maker.
The Saints are fighting for their playoff lives, and the Bucs look as though they may have laid them to rest. Jeff Garcia is leading the offense well and will be playing one of his favorite opponents in Carolina. Garcia has been successful against the Panthers, dating back to his days with the Philadelphia Eagles, and will look to extend that streak.
The Bucs will be without Earnest Graham, their leading rusher, due to an ankle injury that has him sidelined for the rest of the year. Warrick Dunn, and the now-healthy Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, will handle ground duties for the Bucs. For Williams, he will return to the sight where he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for over a year when he comes into Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers Will Win If…
They can continue their success on the ground
If DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart can combine for a big game on the ground, it will open up the possibility for Jake Delhomme and the Panthers’ receivers to make big plays that could change the outcome of the game.
Tampa Bay has only allowed one rushing touchdown this year and has the fourth-ranked defense in the league. If Carolina can change that trend then they will certainly have the upper hand at home.
The secondary keeps the Bucs’ receivers in check
The Panthers secondary had a tough time last week keeping Greg Jennings and Donald Driver in check, and will have their hands full with Antonio Bryant on Monday. The underneath routes for medium gains are what Green Bay used to claw their way back into the game last Sunday and Jeff Garcia is known for his ability to do just that.
The secondary will be faced with the task of covering their assignments longer because of Garcia’s ability to evade the pass-rush; something the Panthers defensive backs have been struggling with this year.
The Panthers Will Lose If…
They start slow
Against a team like Tampa Bay, with so much on the line, a slow start would likely doom the Panthers just as it did in week six. In that game, the Bucs blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown on the Panthers’ first possession of the game and they never recovered.
In the team’s last few games prior to the Packers game, it was the same story. Against Oakland, Detroit, and Atlanta it looked as though the Panthers needed a wake-up call before they kicked into gear. The Panthers need to come out with high intensity, and their home fans should enable them to do so.
They turn the ball over
The Panthers will need to be very careful with the ball and use intangible factors to their advantage. The Bucs are historically ineffective in cold weather climates and the temperature Monday night is forecasted to be in the mid-30’s.
The Panthers just played at Lambeau last week and are prepped for a cold weather game while the Buccaneers have spent their season in sunny Tampa. Weather is not as big of a factor in today’s NFL as it once was, but it still looms over warm-weather teams. If the Panthers can stay mistake free and force Tampa to make the errors, they will be on their way to victory. However, if Jake Delhomme puts up another three interception performance, like he did in week six, it could spell trouble for the Panthers.
Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia
The quarterback duel will certainly be a main match-up to watch on Monday. Both of these quarterbacks have had success against the opposing team and both are integral parts of their teams’ offensive production.
Garcia has been labeled as a Panther killer in recent years and Delhomme has led the Panthers to several victories over the Bucs since taking over as the starter. The game may very well come down to which of these field generals makes fewer mistakes. As is often the case in the NFL, it’s not what you do that wins the game, it’s what you botch that loses it.
Delhomme will plan to hand the ball off to the dynamic duo in the backfield to start the game but if the Bucs defense takes away the run, the game will rest on Jake’s ability to manage the game and spread the ball to his receivers. Garcia will shoulder more of the offensive burden with the absence of Earnest Graham, but will also need to be on point to keep the Carolina pass rush guessing.
Julius Peppers will be hunting Jeff Garcia and if he finds him, it could spell doom for the Bucs offense.
The Panthers' last Monday Night victory was against the Bucs in 2006 in the same stadium and they will be looking to repeat that success. The stakes are a little bit higher this year as the game is coming later in the season and the teams are tied at 9-3 atop the division. Tampa Bay will try to become the first team to repeat as division winners since the NFC South was conceived in 2002.
The rivalry between the Panthers and Buccaneers is one of the more intense in the NFL these days. While Warren Sapp and Brentson Buckner are gone, the teams still have a genuine dislike for each other that will be on display for a national audience.
The game will be close and will come down to a late game changing play. That scenario favors the Panthers, and that’s why I am picking the Cats to win this one.
Panthers 24, Buccaneers 20
For a view from the other side of the ball, check out Bucs' community leader Oliver Ellis' opposing article.