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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: Week 16 Preview

The Bucs are shorthanded against a division rival, just ahead of the postseason

Last week was a game that Buccaneers fans want to put out of their memory as fast as they can. Just move on to the next game, win, and get back on track. Easy, right? Not so fast. The effects of the loss to New Orleans will be long lasting for the Buccaneers and may very well cost them an opportunity to repeat as champions - though many already question their ability to do so after being shut out on their home field.

Chris Godwin was confirmed to have a torn ACL following a low hit from Saints’ cornerback P.J. Williams early in the second quarter last week while Leonard Fournette and Mike Evans both left the game with hamstring injuries. Fournette is going to injured reserve while Evans is week to week. Towards the end of the game, the Bucs lost captain Lavonte David to a foot injury.

Now, the Buccaneers did get Antonio Brown and Mike Edwards back from their three game suspension and Bruce Arians said AB looks like he did before he got hurt, which is certainly a positive sign. And as a result of Fournette’s injury, the Bucs signed former Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, and most recently Baltimore Ravens running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell told the media after his first practice with the team that he thought he was done with football altogether after he left Baltimore;

“I’m not even going to lie, I got to the point where I had thought about kind of calling it quits just because of the fact that it kind of wasn’t working out for me the last couple spots I had been at. This was literally the only spot that I felt like could have made me want to play football and go out there and be excited to play. This was like literally the only place that could have called me and got me to really go play. I was going to go start focusing on boxing, but I think this was a great opportunity. It’s something you can’t really turn down, playing with Coach [Bruce] Arians, Tom Brady and obviously A.B. (Antonio Brown). They’ve got a good thing going over here. To come over here and try to help – I’m going to try to do my thing.”

Even following the shut out, the Bucs still have the number one scoring offense in the league, however they’ve dropped below 30 points per game. They now average 29.3 points per game to go along with their 304.9 passing yards per game (1st) and 97.6 rush yards per game (25th) to get them to the 2nd overall offense in the league, behind the Dallas Cowboys. That offense will square off against one of the better defensive units in the NFL and the key reason the Panthers have been able to keep contests close following their hot start and rapid decline. The Panthers are allowing 22.4 points per game (18th) while allowing 178.8 passing yards per page (2nd) and 115.6 rushing yards per game (20th). At home, the Panthers are almost spot on with their season average, allowing 22.2 points per game.

The biggest news surround Carolina is, of course, the return of Cam Newton. Newton has struggled - to say the least - since his return. In his last three games, Newton is 38-of-84 for 426 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions. Newton has also rushed 28 times for 123 yards and three touchdowns while being sacked six times and fumbling four times. He’s been pulled on more than one occasion for backup quarterback P.J. Walker and will now have Sam Darnold available to step in for him if Panthers coach Matt Rhule isn’t happy with what he sees.

The Buccaneers defense stepped up in a big way last week and will look to do so again this week even without Lavonte David and potentially Antoine Winfield Jr. They still allow 21.9 points per game (14th) while giving up 244.6 pass yards per game (21st) and 89 yards per game on the ground (3rd).

The Panthers lead the all-time series 24-17, but the Buccaneers have won four of the last five meetings. Of course, Brady has won both of his meetings with the Panthers since coming to Tampa and does have a Super Bowl win against them but is just 4-3 in his career when facing Carolina.

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Buccaneers are sitting at -10 point favorites while the over/under is at 44, an implied point total of 27 for the Bucs. The Panthers are currently riding a five game home losing streak while their last five games in general have hit the over. The Buccaneers have covered the spread in four of their last five meetings against Carolina. In the Brady era, the Bucs have won with an average score of 38.5-20.

A win for the Bucs and they clinch the NFC South. A win for the Panthers and they not only play spoiler but keep their very slim playoff hopes alive. The game between the division rivals kicks off at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. with the broadcast on FOX. Play-by-play man Kevin Kugler and color analyst Mark Sanchez will be on the call for FOX.

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