The scenarios are running through the minds of Buccaneers fans but the ones that end in the Buccaneers as the second seed in the NFC start with a win over the Carolina Panthers. In order for that to happen, the Bucs will have to make due without the player that led the team in offense during their first meeting two weeks ago.
Antonio Brown is done. Finished. Finito. Now, the difference this time around is that Mike Evans is likely to play as he continues to work his way back from a hamstring injury. However, the primary back in the previous meeting - Ronald Jones - seems unlikely to play as he deals with an ankle issue. We saw an increased role from Le’Veon Bell in the comeback win against the Jets so if RoJo is a No-Go, expect Bell to play an even larger role than he did in week seventeen. The more he becomes acclimated to the offense and gets more comfortable with what the team is doing the more he will be utilized - especially in the passing game where he was quite effective last week.
Defensively, don’t expect to see Shaquil Barrett or Jason Pierre-Paul this week but both should be healthy enough to play in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, the Bucs need to win this game to maximize their seeding capability, but they are guaranteed at least one home game as it is so week eighteen isn’t a must-win, but a win sure would help.
The Bucs, in spite of all the madness with injuries and public exits, are still the number two scoring offense in the league with 29.4 points per game (0.5 behind Dallas) and the number one passing offense in the NFL with 306.6 yards per game. They’ve dipped back below 100 rushing yards per game to 99.2 in the extended absence of Leonard Fournette, which is down at 27th in the NFL.
The Panthers have fallen apart over the long haul this year, losing six straight games. After their 32-6 loss to the Bucs, the Panthers fell 18-10 to New Orleans which kept the Saints’ slim playoff hopes alive. Carolina has no clear answer at quarterback and there are questions surrounding the future of head coach Matt Rhule.
In their previous meeting, the bright spot of the defense - Stephon Gilmore - injured his groin. It just so happened that on that play, when he fell down due to that injury - it left Gronk open for his only catch of the contest. Gronk finally broke out of his slump last week, going for over 100 yards receiving on the day.
The Panthers defense is allowing the second fewest pass yards in the league with just 183.9 per game. In their last meeting, Tom Brady threw for 232 and a score, but the Carolina defense did a good job of shutting down the Bucs’ red zone offense and holding them to field goals.
Over the course of the Panthers’ six game losing streak, they have allowed 28.3 points per game which is well above their season average of 22.7.
For many Bucs fans, outside of the seeding race, the focus will be on Mike Evans. Evans is just 54 yards away from his eighth consecutive 1,000 yard season to start his career, extending his own NFL record for the longest such streak in history. Critics may point to it taking to the seventeenth game of the season to accomplish the feat this time around - but you can point to Evans having missed time due to injury and tell them he still did it within what would be a normal sixteen game season.
For all the different playoff scenarios, there is a breakdown here, but the Bucs are trying to set themselves up for as much success as possible. Being the two seed means homefield outside of potentially playing the Green Bay Packers. However, should the Packers be knocked off that would mean the road to Super Bowl LVI goes through Tampa where the Bucs have been outstanding in six of their seven games there. That said, there is no scenario in which the Bucs can be the two seed if they lose to Carolina. They have to take care of their own business and let the rest play itself out. We’ll see if a Hall of Fame Buccaneer can help his old team out with a win against the Rams on Sunday.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Buccaneers are favorites yet again - this time by -8 with an Over/Under of 41.5. The Bucs have won nine of their last ten home games while each of their last five games against an NFC opponent have hit the under. Meanwhile, the Panthers have failed to cover the spread during their six game losing streak.
The Bucs and Panthers kickoff in Raymond James Stadium at 4:25 p.m. ET with the game being broadcast on CBS. Given how rare the Bucs are on CBS, they’ve called in the big dogs. That means Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, and Tracy Wolfson will be on the call for the Buccaneers’ 2021 season finale.