The Carolina Panthers will take on division rival Tampa Bay on Monday night at Bank of America Stadium in an epic matchup that will go a long way toward deciding who wins the division and gets that coveted No.2 NFC playoff seeding.
This is the most enigmatic game that either team will play this season. From one angle, NFC South teams are 22-2 in home divisional games this season. Plus, the tables are turned from the Week Six meeting between the two team that the Bucs won convincingly.
Tampa Bay went into that game coming off a close game against a tough team with a share of first place in the division on the line. Moreover, they were playing at Raymond James Stadium (hence the aforementioned record of NFC teams playing home divisional games).
This time the Panthers are coming off a close affair against a resilient team with even more important stakes at hand. In addition, they're playing at Bank of America Stadium, where they are 6-0 this year.
However, the Buccaneers still dominated every facet of the game in the previous meeting between these teams and they're unbeaten in their last four games, in addition to four out of their last five. The Bucs are simply playing proficient football.
The Panthers edged the Packers for a heart-pounding shootout victory in which RB DeAngelo Williams rushed for four rushing touchdowns. In their last five games Carolina is 4-1. The loss was suffered in a lopsided, 45-28 Week 12 matchup against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Buccaneers QB Jeff Garcia has contributed some of his best performances against the Panthers. The most recent example is the Oct. 12 meeting during which Garcia completed 75 percent of his passes for 173 yards and a touchdown. His mobility and playmaking ability outside the pocket, in particular, routinely gives the Panthers' defense fits.
Warrick Dunn was another proverbial thorn in the Panthers' side in the first Panthers-Bucs game. Assisted by the superior blocking of FB BJ Askew and RB Earnest Graham, he rushed for 115 yards. Carolina also couldn't tackle that day, so many of his yards were gained after first contact.
Tampa Bay's other RB, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (Earnest Graham was placed on the IR about two weeks ago), has averaged 2.4 yards per carry and scored a touchdown since making his 2008 debut in Week 12 against the Lions. However, in last Sunday's game against the Saints, he picked up 20 yards on four carries and scored.
Receiver Joey Galloway returned to the active roster last week but had no catches. He will play this week, but his effectiveness is in question.
Fellow starting WR Antonio Bryant is having a decent year. He has 57 receptions for 736 yards and three touchdowns. Other factors in the Tampa passing game are Ike Hilliard, who has four touchdowns, and TE Alex Smith, who has two scores.
Tampa Bay's offensive line has been solid in pass-protection, allowing only 20 sacks on the season. However, aside from yards per game, it hasn't been especially successful in run-blocking, namely in scoring—the Bucs have only registered eight rushing touchdowns, bad enough for T-23rd in the league.
The Buccaneers' offense will likely have to deal with poor field position for most of the game. The Panthers average about 45.3 yards per kickoff (found by subtracting average return yards from net yards per kick). Moreover, Carolina allows a mere 21.8 yards per kick return, good for eighth in the league. In addition, the Panthers average about 30.3 yards per punt (found by this equation: total yards per punt=net yards per punt—return yards allowed per punt). Needless to say, Tampa Bay will be facing an uphill battle with field position.
Matchup To Watch: Jeff Garcia vs. Julius Peppers
Peppers has been dynamite in all facets of the defensive game this year, but particularly in the pass rush (his 11 sacks are tied for sixth in the NFL). Garcia has tremendous mobility and outstanding playmaking ability on the run outside the pocket for an old geyser. Peppers needs to use his athleticism and superior pass-rushing ability to contain Garcia and minimize the damage that Garcia can do.
While he was anything but effective in the game down in Tampa, Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams is emerging as one of the premier running threats in the NFL. He can power his way to a first down despite his lack of size (5'9", 217 lbs), but he can also use his elusiveness to evade defenders or his demon speed to run right past them. Proof of this are his 955 rush yards (7th in NFL), 79.6 rush yards per game (10th), and his 11 rushing touchdowns (T-3rd).
Backup Jonathan Stewart is another well-rounded back, but is particularly effective around the goal line (he has six rushing touchdowns, which is goo for second among rookies).
WR Steve Smith provides the necessary balance in the passing game for the Panthers. He's always a deep threat in addition to being one of the most explosive playmakers in the league. As a matter of fact, Smith is third in the NFL in pass plays for 20 yards or more (15th) and tied for second in pass plays for 40 or more yards (5th).
Carolina QB Jake Delhomme has really improved in the last two games after an ugly two-game skid during which he combined for 17-of-46 completions amassing 174 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions. In the last two weeks he's gone 33-of-52 for 472 yards and a touchdown, more than enough to balance out with a deadly ground attack.
Delhomme must be precise, accurate, and make good decisions. If he gets off on the wrong foot, that's really bad news for the Panthers—Delhomme throws interceptions in bunches, and Carolina can't afford that against a stingy, No.3-ranked Buccaneers pass defense.
The good news for the Panthers is that Tampa DT Jovan Haye—a key figure in the 'Bucs suffocating run defense and pass rush—is doubtful with a knee injury, and DEs Gaines Adams and Kevin Carter are both questionable, with a hip injury and illness, respectively. Delhomme shouldn't feel too much pressure in the pocket, especially with an offensive line that's tied for fifth in the NFL with only 18 sacks allowed keeping pass rushers away from .
In addition, the O-line should provide RBs Williams and Stewart with some holes to run through.
The Panthers' field position will likely be just as bad as the 'Bucs. Tampa Bay averages about 43 yards per kickoff (found by subtracting average return yards from average yards per kick), and 30.5 yards per punt.
Matchup To Watch: Derrick Brooks vs. Jake Delhomme and Jeff Davidson
Brooks is an ultimate student of the game (he watches hours upon hours of game film every week), so he will know every tendency the Panthers have in their offense.
Delhomme, while certainly not Peyton Manning, will need to call a few audibles in this game to minimize Brooks's ability to make game-changing plays.
Carolina offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson can help Delhomme in that regard by calling a wide range of play types to keep Brooks as honest as possible. Panthers fans know what kind of game-changing ability Brooks has.
Two weeks ago I made the mistake of picking the Panthers to win a close one over the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. It turned out to be a blowout loss. Now I know the power of an NFC South team playing at home, especially when playoff implications are on the line. If the teams in a division have only lost 2-of-24 games against in-division opponents at home, that's no coincidence. That's called home-field advantage.
As badly as the Buccaneers beat the Panthers in Tampa nearly two months ago, the tables have turned completely. Now Carolina is in the position that Tampa Bay was in at that time, and the stakes are much bigger this time around. Never underestimate a hungry (and vengeful) team, especially one playing at home. I'll take the Panthers in their most important game of the season, even if by very little.