Carolina Panthers vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5 Reasons the Panthers Will Win
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The Panthers have already improved upon last season’s 2-14 record, while the Bucs have lost more games in their first 11 contests this season than they did in 2010, when they barely missed the NFL playoffs with a 10-6 mark.
The Panthers are 2-3 in their last five games, while the Bucs have lost five straight.
Carolina's rookie quarterback, Cam Newton, has thrown for 3,093 yards—on pace to break Peyton Manning’s rookie record for most passing yards in a season—to go along with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Newton has also run for 10 touchdowns, just two shy of former New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan’s NFL record 12 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback set in 1976.
Though he’s on pace for nearly 4,000 passing yards in a record-setting NFL season in the Year of the Quarterback, Tampa Bay’s third-year signal caller, Josh Freeman, has regressed significantly from last season’s 25-touchdown/six-interception performance with 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions and just a pair of touchdown runs through 11 games.
In a game between teams headed in opposite directions, here are five reasons the Carolina Panthers will defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this weekend.
Panthers Running Game
Jonathan Stewart (28)
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The Carolina Panthers have won three games this season against teams that now have losing records, and in their most recent couple of victories, against the Redskins and the Colts, they dominated the clock by running the ball more often than they passed.
The Panthers’ other victory, a 16-10 win in Week 3 over the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars (3-8), came in the team’s worst offensive performance during a torrential downpour that limited both offenses.
The Panthers love to throw the ball, as Cam Newton’s and Steve Smith’s statistics will attest, but their most effective games on the ground—175 rushing yards against the Redskins and 201 yards versus the Colts—have both resulted in victories.
The Panthers have five more games this season to try to execute their winning formula—three of which come against teams with winning records—and two of those games come against the Bucs, who are 30th against the run so far this season.
Panthers Defense Is Primed for Big Game
Sherrod Martin (29) and the Panthers' defensive back celebrate Martin's game clinching interception against the Colts.
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The Carolina Panthers’ defense has been the team’s weak link for most of the season.
The Panthers are next to last in scoring defense, giving up 27.7 ppg, and thanks to injuries among the linebackers and inexperience in the middle of the defensive line, they are 28th against the run, allowing 137.5 rushing yards per game.
The Panthers have also failed to hold an opposing back to under 80 yards in every game but one.
However, head coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers still have pride on the defensive side of the ball.
Carolina’s pass defense is in the middle of the pack statistically, mainly because they have so much trouble stopping the run, but their overall pass defense—minus the debacle against Detroit—has been solid thanks to the play of shutdown cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Sherrod Martin.
Gamble and Martin each recorded key endzone interceptions in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ win against the Colts last weekend, and the defense was finally able to claim partial credit for a victory this season.
The Buccaneers will likely come at the Panthers with a healthy dose of LeGarrette Blount—4.7 ypc—and Carolina will be challenged to slow down Tampa Bay’s running game, particularly up the middle where the Panthers are weakest.
However, linebackers James Anderson, Dan Connor and Jordan Senn are committed to stopping the run, while defensive ends, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, should be able to put pressure on Josh Freeman this weekend.
The Panthers defense is a work in progress and in need of retooling, but Sean McDermott’s unit may be primed for a stellar performance this weekend at Tampa Bay.
Carolina's Special Teams
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Special teams have not been the Panthers' strength for most of the season.
Carolina allowed three punt returns in the first 10 games of the season, and through the same stretch, their punt and kick return units have been nearly as bad, costing the Panthers field position every week.
However, the punt coverage has improved in the past two weeks, and just as importantly, the Panthers may have finally found a solution to their field position problems in kick returner Kialoha Pilares.
Pilares returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions—the longest in team history and first Panthers kick return since Rod "He Hate Me" Smart ran one back in 2003—and added a 76-yard return to his resume last week against the Colts before being tackled by, of all people, the kicker.
Armanti Edwards also flashed his potential with a long punt return that was called back for an illegal block in the back.
Still, the decisiveness with which he ran after fielding the punt should be a confidence builder for Edwards as he grows into the role of punt returner.
The Panthers have been battling field position issues most of the season, but if Pilares and Edwards can continue to build on their recent performances, Carolina's offense will get a shorter field, which could make for a very long day for the Tampa Bay defense.
Buccaneers on a Sinking Ship
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5)
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After starting the season 4-2, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone on a five-gave skid.
The Bucs' losing streak began in London, England, where they lost to the Chicago Bears (7-4), 24-18, at Wembley Stadium in London, England, and they haven't stopped losing since.
Tampa Bay's post-European vacation schedule did not do them any favors, though, as they have since traveled to New Orleans to take on the Saints (8-3), hosted the Houston Texans (8-3), visited the Green Bay Packers (11-0) and took a trip to Nashville to play the Tennessee Titans (6-5).
The Buccaneers may be battle-tested after facing five potential playoff teams in a row and a visit from the 3-8 Panthers could be just what the doctor ordered to help the Bucs "get healthy" this week.
However, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's better to be clawing your way back up the ladder than it is to be on a sinking ship.
Motivation to Win Back-to-Back Games for First Time Since 2009
Top Cats: Victory Dance
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The Carolina Panthers won their first road game since 2009, when they defeated the Indianapolis Colts last week.
This week, at Tampa Bay, the Panthers will attempt to win consecutive games, also for the first time since 2009.
As I wrote earlier this week, Carolina is playing now to learn how to win games and to set the tone for a resurgent 2012 season.
Though last week's victory came against the winless Colts, any NFL win, especially on the road, is a big win.
That they won with special teams, controlling the clock, the run game and an opportunistic defense are even more reasons for optimism.
They may be out of the playoff chase, but the Panthers will not need any extra motivation to try to beat their division rival.
Panthers 30, Buccaneers 24