Even though the records are less than superb, the NFC South division crown will come down to important matchups like the one we’ll see on Sunday, featuring the Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Panthers logged an impressive win at home in Week 16 against the Detroit Lions, winning by a final score of 37-23. On Christmas night, the Buccaneers were also able to get into the win column, edging the Arizona Cardinals 19-16 in overtime.
This is the second meeting of the season between these two teams, with Carolina coming out victorious by a 21-3 margin.
We’ll take a look at three things to look out for in Sunday’s game.
A Well Rounded Fournette
The Buccaneers’ struggles on offense have been well documented, as they’ve had a difficult time creating explosive plays. Everything seems to be laborious for them right now, and going up against an underrated Panthers defense won’t be easy for Tampa Bay. While their win against Arizona was far from perfect, they may have unlocked something that can help them function moving forward.
The Buccaneers have been stymied on the ground, but utilized running back Leonard Fournette as part of their passing attack against the Cardinals. He had nine catches for 90 yards in Week 16, which actually led the team. Quarterback Tom Brady is not going to use Fournette to challenge defenses deep, but his presence as an outlet when nothing else is open can help keep the offense in manageable down and distance. It could be something the team goes to again against Carolina.
Setting The Tone On The Ground
There weren’t many people who thought the Panthers would remain relevant in the playoff hunt after their trades of Robbie Anderson and Christian McCaffery a couple of months ago. Somehow, the team has managed to rally around the guys who are still in that locker room, and aren’t interested in throwing away a year of their career. The Panthers have managed to establish a formidable rushing attack with D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard since they moved McCaffery.
Getting off to a good start is going to be huge for Carolina. If they’re able to jump out to a lead or play even with Tampa Bay, it’ll allow them to remain committed to a rushing attack that has chewed up yards as well as the clock.
Mental Hurdles To Overcome
The Panthers should have confidence heading into this game, considering that they handled the Buccaneers in the first meeting. The formula for them to repeat that success is there, but there was one key player who didn’t suit up for the first matchup that will have a prominent role this time around.
Quarterback Sam Darnold missed extended time this season due to an ankle injury, and he’s been a bit of a re-energized player since he’s stepped back into the lineup. Dating back to his days with the New York Jets, Darnold hasn’t fared well against Tom Brady, and he’ll likely be motivated to show that he can hang tough in a crucial game involving the future Hall of Famer.