National Football League
Panthers-Buccaneers 'essentially a playoff game' with NFC South title on the line
National Football League

Panthers-Buccaneers 'essentially a playoff game' with NFC South title on the line

Published Dec. 30, 2022 1:25 p.m. ET

So much of the Carolina Panthers' surprising charge to playoff contention has been their dominant running attack, and as they go to Tampa on Sunday with the NFC South title hanging in the balance, the Buccaneers have a major challenge to keep that ground game in check.

"You've got to bring your big-boy pants, you’ve got to be gap sound, you’ve got to be physical and bring that demeanor to the game," Bucs co-defensive coordinator Larry Foote said this week. "They’ve got big backs — No. 33 [D'Onta Foreman] is a big guy, No. 30 [Chuba Hubbard] is slashing. But you’ve got to be gap sound, you’ve got to know what to do about the ball, you’ve got to know where your help is at and play fundamentally sound up front. You’ve got to be willing and ready to come meet it head on."

The Panthers rushed for a franchise record 320 yards in last week's win over the Lions, and they've had at least 40 carries in each of their four wins over the last six contests to pull within a game of the Bucs atop the NFC South standings. Foreman, who had just 37 rushing yards on the season when the Panthers traded star back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers in late October, is third in the NFL in rushing since then, going for 774 yards, including five 100-yard games.

That turnaround started in Week 7, when the Panthers were 1-4 and dominated the Bucs in a 21-3 win in Charlotte, with Foreman ripping off a 60-yard run in the second half, setting the tone for the team's strong play in going 5-5 under interim coach Steve Wilks.


Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said this week that the recent success of the ground game is encouraging, especially Sunday, but won't help them against the Bucs, so they'll need to have the same approach if they want the same results.

"It was one of those days, and that was great, but when you hit the building the next day, you've got to make sure you hit the reset button, not the easy button," McAdoo said. "It doesn't work that way, especially this week."

The Bucs had the NFL's No. 1 run defense in 2019 and 2020, the latter a Super Bowl championship season for them, but they've fallen to the middle of the pack against the run this season. A big part of that has been injuries to their massive defensive tackles, Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks. Tampa Bay is 5-1 this season when both of them are healthy and playing, and 2-7 when at least one is missing. The Bucs are giving up 88.9 rushing yards per game with both of them — which would translate to a top-five run defense — but 141.2 per game when they're missing one of them.

Tampa Bay, despite the disappointment of a 7-8 record, can clinch the NFC South title with a win, and the Panthers can put themselves in good position to do the same, as a win Sunday would allow them to clinch next week by beating the Saints. The game has the all-in urgency of a playoff game, and the Bucs are treating it as such.

"It is a playoff game — they need it and we need it, so it’s essentially a playoff game," Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. "Our playoff games started last Sunday when we won [versus the Cardinals], so this Sunday will be the same."

If the Bucs can win again, they would be locked into the NFC's No. 4 seed, playing the conference's top wild card, likely the Cowboys, whom they beat 19-3 in the season opener. Knowing they can't change their postseason seeding, the Bucs would be able to rest key players in next week's game at Atlanta, though they would still have the incentive of finishing with a winning record.

The Bucs have gotten good news with both starting offensive tackles — Pro Bowl right tackle Tristan Wirfs and left tackle Donovan Smith — practicing this week after injury concerns. They could be down two corners, as Carlton Davis hasn't practiced due to a shoulder injury and Jamel Dean is still limited after missing two games with a toe injury.

Carolina has its own injury concerns, losing corner Jaycee Horn to a wrist injury, with Donte Jackson already on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon. The Panthers took the extra step of signing veteran Josh Norman, who is 35 and hadn't played this season, bringing him back as emergency help in a depleted secondary.

"We know what this game entails," Wilks said this week. "Great preparation, and hopefully that's going to lead to outstanding execution."

Prediction: Tampa Bay gets healthy in the right places and Tom Brady finds a way to get the offense to click in ways it largely hasn't against a Panthers secondary dealing with injuries. 

Bucs 27, Panthers 21

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Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.


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