It all comes down to Sunday Afternoon for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their 2022 season. Win against the Carolina Panthers, and the Bucs win the NFC South for the second consecutive season and will host a first-round playoff game.
A loss and the season ends for the Buccaneers with a meaningless game in Atlanta next week.
The Buccaneers have said all the right things this week as they prepare for their NFC South showdown with their arch-rivals from Carolina.
The Buccaneers come into the game with a 7-8 record, while the Panthers bring their 6-9 record to Tampa.
The Buccaneers were humiliated 21-3 in their first matchup with the Panthers in Charlotte.
The Panthers ran all over the Buccaneer’s defense in that game for 173 yards and a 6.4-yard average. This was the first game for the Panthers without Christian McCaffrey, but it didn’t matter.
Donta Foreman ran for 118 yards, and Chubba Hubbard added 73 in the Panthers’ win.
PJ walker had a 125.6 QBR rating, passing for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
The Panthers come into this game having won three out of their last four. They also set a new franchise rushing record against the Lions last weekend with 320 yards on the ground, an astounding 7.4 yards a carry.
Much has changed with the Panthers since that first meeting. After a 2-7 start, the Panthers parted ways with head coach Matt Ruhle and named Steve Wilks interim coach. The Panthers, since the change, have gone 4-2.
The Baker Mayfield era was short-lived at quarterback, as he was injured early in the season. The Panthers released Mayfield in early December, and he immediately signed with the Rams.
Since the Mayfield release, Sam Darnold has stepped into the starting role and has done an excellent job with a strong running game as a compliment. He is completing 61 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a QBR of 104.3
Buccaneers Must Stop the Run
We’ve been writing about the Buccaneer’s inability to stop the run all season. If they cannot slow down the power-running game of Donta Foreman and Chubba Hubbard, they will not win this game.
The Panthers are seventh in the NFL in rushing averaging 131 yards per game.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers have been one of the best in the NFL the last six weeks giving up an average of 18.1 points per game.
Brian Burns is the defensive leader with 12.5 sacks, and linebacker Shaq Thompson has been a beast with 116 tackles on the season.
With Jaycee Horn out with a wrist injury, the Panthers brought back a familiar face in cornerback Josh Norman this week. Norman was placed on the active roster this week and will be limited to 25 plays.
The Buccaneer’s defense is slowly getting healthy. Carlton Davis and Carl Nassib are the only two defenders that have been ruled out for Sunday’s game.
Jamel Dean, Mike Edwards, Vita Vea, and Antoine Winfield Jr. are all questionable.
The Bucs did get some good news this week as center Ryan Jensen who has been out all season, returned to the practice field this week. The Bucs will have 21 days to activate Jensen from the IR. Coach Todd Bowles said that Jensen would not be activated for the Panthers game.
Tackle Donovan Smith and wide receiver Julio Jones could be game-time decisions, as they were listed as questionable on Friday.
Buccaneers Need A Strong Game From Leonard Fournette
Is Playoff Lenny starting to get into playoff form? It sure looked like it last week, as he totaled 162 yards of offense in his best performance this season.
Fournette has to be better in short-yardage situations. The Buccaneers have to be able to get one or two yards to keep the chains moving. Unfortunately, this season, the short yardage package has been an epic fail.
Fournette must have a big game to give the Buccaneers a chance to win this game.
Every week, we seem to talk about Lavonte David and Devin White having big games and working to shut down the run game. But that must happen again this week for the Buccaneers to win.
Hold the Panther’s run game to under 100 yards, and the Bucs have a good chance of winning this game. But let Foreman and Hubbard run wild; the Buccaneers do not win this game.
Talking with the media this week, Chris Godwin summed up the importance of this game. “We understand what’s at stake here. We’ve been pretty up and down all season, but it’s time for us to turn it on. If we want to make it to the postseason, we control our own destiny right now, so we’ve got to go and take advantage of it. This is a team that has beaten us already, and they play really hard, so we’ve got to go out there and bring it.”
This will be an ugly game, as most Buccaneer games have been this season.
The Buccaneers have been in these pressure-packed games before. Tom Brady is at his best when his back is against the wall.
Look for the Buccaneer’s defense to rise to the occasion and slow down the Panther’s running game. Sam Darnold will not beat you by himself. Stopping the run is the key.
I like the Buccaneers to win this game 17-14 and claim their second NFC South title.