The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have come into this game resting some of their injured players and preparing to face the second place team in the NFC East had they taken care of business last week. Instead, the Saints punched them square in the mouth and they had no response. It’s not often that you get a second chance at something - especially the NFL - but the Bucs have a second chance to come in first place in the NFC South.
All that’s standing in their way are the Carolina Panthers who would love nothing more than to ruin the Bucs’ day, season, and maybe some people’s livelihoods.
The first game between these two teams was much closer than Bucs fans wanted to see. While they did win 21-18 in a torrential downpour during the first half and overcoming a poor performance from Baker Mayfield, the Bucs at one time trailed 10-7 until Mike Evans had a 75-yard catch, run, and dive touchdown to put the Bucs ahead.
That game also sparked the four game win streak that has Tampa Bay in position to make the playoffs in the first place. After that ugly, gritty win over Carolina they went on to beat the Falcons, Packers, and Jaguars en route to first place in the division where they’ve stayed - but haven’t clinched yet. They still need to win Sunday to do that.
Now, technically they could win the division and make the playoffs without winning. It would mean they tie Carolina and the Saints either lose to or tie the Falcons. Let’s be honest - if you tie the Carolina Panthers, you don’t deserve to be in the playoffs anyway. And the only way the Bucs are going to beat either the Eagles or Cowboys is if they play the way they did against the Packers and Jaguars. Tying the Panthers the week before that game won’t exactly instill confidence in the players, coaches, or fans that they can reach that level of play again this season.
Quite simply, the Bucs have to come out firing and dominate from the jump. For as bad as they played in all three phases last week, they have to excel in those three phases this week. It doesn’t matter that the opponent only has two wins. Control every aspect of the game, dominate the opponent, and get ready for the playoffs. For the Bucs, this can’t be another sloppy, close game against an inferior team.
Because if it is, there may be some serious changes to the coaching staff and roster as a result. However, if they play the way they should - and how we’ve seen them play this year - they’ll win the division for the third straight year for the first time in franchise history while getting to the playoffs for the fourth straight for just the second time - matching the mark set by the 1999-2002 Bucs.
According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Buccaneers are 4.5-point road favorites with an over/under of 37.5. The Panthers have lost the first half in each of their last seven games and have lost ten of their last eleven games against NFC opponents.
The Buccaneers and Panthers face off at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on FOX with Kenny Albert and Jonathan Vilma on the call.