With questions about the franchise’s future dominating the news, the Carolina Panthers turn their focus to the team’s more immediate outlook when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. The Panthers can clinch a playoff spot and stay alive in the NFC South title race with a win over the struggling Buccaneers.
Carolina is tied with New Orleans atop the division standings and can secure a postseason berth with a victory. The Panthers need wins in their final two games and a loss by the Saints to capture the division, thanks to a pair of setbacks against New Orleans. The team could use some good news on the field to end a week during which owner Jerry Richardson announced plans to sell the team following reports of workplace misconduct. The Buccaneers could use any kind of positive news, having lost four straight and nine of their last 11.
TV: 1 p.m. ET, FOX. LINE: Panthers -10. O/U: 46.5
ABOUT THE BUCCANEERS (4-10): Tampa Bay has lost eight straight games started by quarterback Jameis Winston, but he’s hardly to blame for the recent shortcomings. Winston was 27-of-35 for 299 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in Monday night’s 35-27 loss to Atlanta, but a porous defense couldn’t slow down the Falcons. Tampa Bay ranks 31st in total defense and is the NFL’s worst at stopping the pass.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (10-4): Carolina’s defense ranks fifth overall and has been especially tough against the run, but it has begun to show some weaknesses. Five straight opponents have topped 100 rushing yards – a milestone the Panthers allowed only twice through their first nine games – but Carolina has mitigated the damage with seven takeaways over the last two weeks. The passing game has fallen off this season, but Cam Newton is as dangerous as ever running the ball alongside running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey, and he has his favorite target back as tight end Greg Olsen made nine catches for 116 yards and a score last week for his first significant contribution since returning from injury.
1. Panthers LB Thomas Davis, the team’s No. 3 tackler, is suspended for Sunday’s game for an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Green Bay’s Davante Adams last week.
2. Six of Tampa Bay’s 10 losses have come by six points or fewer, including each of the last three.
3. McCaffrey is the only rookie running back in NFL history with at least 70 receptions and five receiving touchdowns.
PREDICTION: Panthers 27, Buccaneers 19