by Sharon Thorsland
The NFC South is up for grabs and the Panthers can take control with a win over the Bucs in Tampa on Sunday. That plus a win next week over the Saints would give them the division title and a playoff berth at Bank of America Stadium for the first time since 2015. But the Panthers aren’t focusing on that – they’re reciting their usual mantra of “it’s the biggest game because it’s the next game.” Can they keep that focus? They’ll have to if they want to upset the Bucs at home.
The Panthers are certainly playing well right now, they’re coming off a dominant performance against the Lions and have won three of their last four games. The Bucs haven’t been so great – they’re 7-8 on the season after an overtime Christmas miracle in Arizona and have lost three of their last four games. But they’ve still got Tom Brady, and that means you can’t ever count them out. “When you have the best to ever do it at that position, they’re never out of the game,” said Panther coach Steve Wilks. “We really have to have that finish mentality and have to understand that this is going to be for 60 minutes, maybe 60 plus.”
Brady directs the NFL’s 4th ranked passing attack and has a slew of outstanding receivers, including All-Pros Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Julio Jones. What he doesn’t have is a run game. The Bucs are dead last in the NFL managing just 77 rushing yards per game. All-Pro back Leonard Fournette is healthy again though, and dynamic rookie Rachaad White has stepped up recently and has over 700 combined rushing and receiving yards and three scores.
The Panthers are having no such problems running the ball, they picked up 320 yards on the ground last week and have rushed for over 1000 yards in their last six games. This week they get a Bucs defense that has struggled at times to stop the run but ranks 6th in the league in total defense and 7th in points allowed. Devin White and Lavonte David anchor an outstanding linebacking corps, and the Bucs secondary got a boost with the return of starting safeties Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Mike Edwards, they’ve combined for four sacks and three interceptions this season. “They’ve got a great defense,” said Panther quarterback Sam Darnold. “Their scheme is really good and they’ve also got some really good players over there. We’re excited for the challenge.