The Carolina Panthers travel to the far, shallow South destination of Tampa Bay to take on the Buccaneers in what is effectively the NFC South title game. The Bucs and Saints will technically still be alive in the division if the Panthers win, but Carolina would be in first place for the final week of the season.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to hold on to their divisional lead and home playoff game with a win over the Panthers. These are painfully different circumstances from their last encounter. The Panthers entered their Week 7 game at Carolina as a 1-5 team that had recently fired their head coach and the Bucs sat 3-3, already heavy favorites to take the division.
The Panthers victory that week was the first of the Steve Wilks era and started the process that brings us all here today to watch a 5-5 Panthers team (since Wilks’ promotion) play for a title. division.
To get an idea of how the Bucs never got away with the division and how the Panthers could wrest it from them, I reached out to Gil Arcia at Bucs Nation. Read on for his thoughts on Tom Brady, Tampa’s defense, and why the odds in this game are so close.
Brady had eight turnovers (six interceptions, two lost fumbles) over the past three weeks while leading his team to a 49-85 point differential during that span, is it safe to say he eventually lost focus on the game ahead of him?
It’s not so much the goal, but rather part of the decision-making on his part that has been a headache. Yes, even the future Hall of Famer should be scrutinized for his game lately – and honestly throughout the season. He seems bent on targeting specific receivers on routes rather than tracking his progress as he has done so well before. Several weeks ago, Pro Football Focus charted his throws and Brady had his worst season yet with off-target throws and close interceptions as well as the most short-throw throws in his career (while also being near the top of the league in these categories). Some didn’t believe it was true back then, but are now seeing it happening before their very eyes as those bad pitches now catch up.
Many point to a lack of confidence in a battered offensive line where he is quick to throw to a receiver for fear of getting hit. However, even when he has time, his shots miss the plate and result in interceptions and incompleteness. There is also talk of his shoulder pain as a factor, but this continues to be a topic that is not discussed. Whatever the explanation or the excuse, this isn’t the same Brady that so many people are used to seeing.
The Bucs, for who knows how many weeks in a row now, looked anemic for most of a game just to start looking like a superbowl winning Juggernaut when they slip into their rushing attack late in the fourth quarter. What is driving this change, why can’t they exploit it sooner, and what can the Panthers do to stop it?
Head coach Todd Bowles answered this same question while mentioning it himself as a form of questioning. In reality, it’s difficult for any team to maintain a rushing attack consistently throughout a match and that’s why we don’t see it as often as many would like. But I wonder when they do. There have been a few instances where they have gone there to start a game or when heading into halftime and have had some success. Then they go flat to start the second half, like clockwork. It works because it gives Brady the ability to dissect a defense’s staff and hit a lot of undershots where a defense naturally plays to keep the opposition ahead of them. Carolina can be successful against it by playing against the man, and the game against the Bengals a few weeks ago proves that’s the recipe for stopping it or at least slowing Brady down.
You all went, in two weeks, from Donovan Smith to Josh Wells to Brandon Walton at left tackle. Smith wasn’t really well-liked by Bucs fans and the rest are the guys who couldn’t beat him for the job when healthy. What are the expectations for the left tackle position on Sunday, both in terms of who will start and how they might fare against a Brian Burns whose path to the playoffs runs through their shoes?
Donovan Smith has been very good since Brady’s arrival and Brady has only raved about him. This season, however, is a different story. Whatever issue or issues that have been or have been for Smith throughout 2022 may have occurred to him now as there is no timeline for when he will return to ‘100 %”. Wells and Walton actually played well when at left tackle. The team prefers to have Smith there, but it’s not just him, the entire offensive line has had its fair share of struggles throughout the season.
As for Sunday’s game, the team is optimistic that Smith will return. But otherwise, we’ll probably see Walton in there. Yet an even bigger concern is right tackle Tristan Wirfs who re-injured his ankle last Sunday. Bucs could most likely do without the two starting tackles on Sunday.
The Panthers’ current one recipe for victory, one that now hilariously has them vying for a playoff berth, relies heavily on the running game. Exclusively, if we’re being honest. How has the Bucs’ defense held up for 15 games this season? the Steelers held the Panthers to 21 yards on 16 carries in Week 15, the Lions allowed 320 yards and three touchdowns on 43 carries in Week 16. Which end of the spectrum will the Bucs end up on?
It’s incredibly difficult to predict which version of the Buccaneers defense we’ll see. They’re an inconsistent group in this department and the reason for that is because linebackers miss their wideout assignments and other defensive players forget how to tackle. But, when Tampa Bay is nose to nose with Vita Vea, it shows. Teams seem to run against the Buccaneers a lot easier when he’s out of the lineup. Unfortunately, there is a chance he will miss this game as well, marking his third game in a row missed due to a calf injury. If he plays, he won’t be 100% and will more than likely be limited. Tampa Bay gave up more than 120 rushing yards last week and could see a similar result on Sunday.
Speaking of playoff games, this one is. The winner of this week’s game will be the favorite to win the NFC South and host the first seeded Wildcards. Draftkings Sportsbook opened that game with the Bucs as home favorites with 5.5 points. As of this writing on Tuesday, it’s already dropped to having the Bucs as 3-point favorites. Practically a draw. There are so many questions here:
How has no one got away with this division when everyone else has – and threatens to end the season with – a losing record?
Can the NFC South convince the NFL to institute relegation?
Will Tom Brady finally retire rather than be part of this mess again?
But how about keeping it simple. As e-Vegas gets nervous about this game and no one trusts it, what do you think will happen on Sunday?
It’s the same song and dance every week this season, where the Bucs are favored and end up playing a lackluster offensive game. There’s been nothing about the 2022 Tampa Bay offense that screams “They’ll definitely cover” or “They’ll blow the spread.” I expect bettors to get even closer if Smith is said to miss the game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carolina win this game because that’s what the Buccaneers have been all season, an underperforming group. I will choose the Panthers over the Bucs 20-16.