The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking to lock up their first back-to-back division titles since...ever. That’s right - the Bucs have never won the division in consecutive years. In fact, they’ve only won the division four times - 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2021. They have as many last place finishes in the NFC South as they do first, second, and third combined. All that’s standing in their way are the Carolina Panthers who went from firing their coach, trading their star player, and rebuilding to division contenders in the blink of an eye.
The Panthers won the first meeting between the two teams 21-3 and can put themselves in the driver’s seat to win the South with a win this weekend - however, they can’t clinch without a win over the Saints in Week 18.
Tom Brady was undefeated against the Panthers as the quarterback of the Buccaneers until the loss this season where he went 32-of-49 for 290 yards and no touchdowns. Now, the Bucs once again have their backs up against the wall and are looking to clinch the division so that Ryan Jensen’s return to practice doesn’t get wasted.
Yes, Ryan Jensen is on the cusp of returning - but it won’t be this week against Carolina. Instead, you’re looking at a situation where Jensen’s most likely return will come in the Wild Card round of the playoffs and that changes everything.
The protection for Brady this season has been suspect at best and solidifying the interior with Jensen will likely give Brady a boost of confidence about the guys in front of him. Whether or not the Bucs slide Robert Hainsey over to left guard - where he played at Notre Dame until the Bucs began transitioning him to center - is yet to be seen. Nick Leverett has been solid since taking over the starting job and the Bucs may not want to mess with that.
The other thing Bucs fans will be looking for is Mike Evans to have a big day. He is 83 yards away from his ninth consecutive 1,000 yard season to start a career and in reaching that he can extend his already existing NFL record. In sixteen games against the Panthers in his career, he has 1,089 yards and seven touchdowns - but had one of the worst drops of his career against Carolina earlier this season. He finished with a solid 96 yards, but dropped a walk-in 60+ yard touchdown early in the game that seemed to set the tone for the afternoon.
The Panthers are allowing 291.7 passing yards per game (20th in the NFL) and 22.5 points per game (19th in the NFL) while the Bucs are still stagnant at 17.7 points per game on offense (28th in the NFL) yet they average 269.3 passing yards per game (4th in the NFL). With Jaycee Horn’s status up in the air for this game, the Panthers’ best corner not being on the field could certainly play into the Bucs’ favor.
The game, however, will be won or lost in the rushing game. The Panthers have been fantastic - even without Christian McCaffrey - averaging 131.0 yards per game (10th in the NFL) while the Bucs’ rushing defense is allowing 120.3 rush yards per game (17th in the NFL) but the potential return of Vita Vea this week would certainly help the Bucs slow down the Carolina rushing attack.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Buccaneers are 3-point home favorites with an over/under of 40.5. The Bucs haven’t covered the spread in their last eight home games and eight of the Bucs’ last nine games have hit the under. Meanwhile, the underdog in the last four Panthers games have gone on to win.
The Bucs and Panthers will kickoff at Raymond James Stadium at 1:00 p.m. ET with the game being broadcast on FOX. Kevin Burkhardt, Greg Olsen, and Erin Andrews will be on the call.