Steve Smith (89)
The Carolina Panthers (5-9) head into their Week 16 matchup in Charlotte against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) on Christmas Eve prepared to make a statement to the rest of the league, which they mean to carry over to the 2012 NFL season.
That statement, which the Panthers began writing with their signature 28-13 road victory over the Houston Texans (10-4) in Week 15, is "We are proud, we are prepared, and we are a force to be reckoned with in 2012."
The Panthers jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead last weekend in Houston, only to allow the Texans to close that gap to eight points in a sluggish third quarter that included three-and-outs and stalled drives that have become all too familiar to Panthers fans this season.
On several occasions this season, including both contests against the Atlanta Falcons (9-5) and the Detroit Lions (9-5), Carolina has started games on fire and entered the break with a commanding lead, only to squelch the momentum they built in the first 30 minutes.
To most realistic observers and cautiously pessimistic Panthers fans, the past appeared to foretell the future until Carolina drove down the field and restored their ownership of the game with an 80-yard drive to reclaim Sunday afternoon dominance and a 15-point lead.
Carolina ran out the clock with a drive that included five first-downs and took more than seven minutes to close the game and secure the win.
How will the Panthers finish the season?
Making a Statement Against the Bucs
The Panthers are looking square in the face of a statement game this weekend. Hosting an NFC South division rival they've defeated once already this season, the Panthers are looking to build momentum and optimism among their fan base heading into the offseason.
In the Panthers' Week 13 game at Tampa, quarterback Cam Newton scored three rushing touchdowns en route to breaking Steve Grogan's longstanding NFL single-season record for touchdown runs by a quarterback.
In Week 16, Newton could break Peyton Manning's all-time record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback with only 18 yards against the same team.
That Manning's record will fall this weekend is inevitable.
That the Panthers will win is not.
However, Cam Newton and company have the opportunity to win convincingly against a struggling division rival they defeated 38-19 just a few short weeks ago. Plus, they have the chance to win consecutive games for the second time this season.
Will the Panthers make the Playoffs in 2012?
Neither the Carolina Panthers nor the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a shot at making the NFL playoffs this season.
However, while the Bucs are slumping, the Panthers are surging, having won three of their past four games.
With a victory over Tampa Bay this weekend, Carolina has a chance to enter their Week 17 matchup at the New Orleans Saints (11-3) with a 4-1 record in their last five games, facing a team that will have likely secured a No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs with no chance for mobility.
The Saints could end up resting several key starters, including quarterback Drew Brees—at least once he's eclipsed Dan Marino's all-time single-season passing record. This would give Carolina the chance to finish the season with six wins in their final seven games.
Remember, the Detroit Lions finished strong in 2010, winning their last four games after a 2-10 start, and they are on the brink of a wild-card berth in the NFC.
A strong finish for the Panthers following a 2-8 start could portend well for a winning season in 2012.