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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers-Panthers: Top Storylines & Key Matchups in Week 18

As the Bucs seek a division-clinching win in Charlotte they'll get a second crack at rookie QB Bryce Young and will have to deal with a highly-ranked pass defense anchored by DT Derrick Brown


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have 60 more minutes of regular-season football in their 2023 season. How well they make use of them will determined whether these are their final 60 minutes overall.

The Buccaneers missed an opportunity to clinch a third straight NFC South title in Week 17 when they lost at home to the New Orleans Saints. That kept both the Saints and Atlanta Falcons alive in the title hunt, but only the Buccaneers know they will capture it if they win in Week 18. For the Bucs, that involves a trip to Charlotte to play a Panthers team they only beat by three points in Week 13.

That particular game was the beginning of a four-game winning streak that took Tampa Bay from the fringes of the playoff chase to the verge of qualifying. The Bucs barely held off the Panthers but their overall level of play got better and better through wins over Atlanta, Green Bay and Jacksonville…before it crashed back down in all three phases of the game against New Orleans. The Bucs want to prove their previous month of football was the true representation of what they are capable of, and that Week 17 was the fluke. If so, they will look back fondly on what was, overall, a very impressive six-week stretch run.

"We won four out of five," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "We did a hell of a job winning four out of five, and [if] we win five out of six, we get in. That's the reality of it. Winning six in a row would have been outstanding, winning five out of six isn't bad either. We've just got to buckle down and win the last one."

The Buccaneers will be favored to take care of the 2-14 Carolina Panthers, who have locked up the worst record in the NFL in 2023, but they won't be gifted anything. Carolina is coming off a lopsided loss in Jacksonville but rookie quarterback Bryce Young has delivered some strong performances down the stretch and the Panthers' defense ranks third in both total defense and passing defense.

"Fortunately, for us, we have a chance to clinch the division next week against a very scrappy team," said Evans after the Saints game. "I know their record doesn't show it, but they're really scrappy, so we have to come with it next week."

The Buccaneers were getting used to celebrating in the postgame locker room, but Sunday's tone was one of surprise and irritation that the team came out as flat as it did against the Saints. Baker Mayfield and the Bucs' offense had seemed to be peaking at just the right time but couldn't get it into gear until a strong fourth quarter on Sunday.

"We just didn't come out and bring it to Sunday," said Mayfield after the team felt like it had prepared well for New Orleans. "Didn't translate. And so, can't have that. We've got to be able to show up when we need it. But luckily, we have one more game to seal this thing. Once again, back's against the wall. So, somewhere we've been before and we've got to get it fixed and move forward."

It was Mayfield who began the team's talk of treating each game like it was a playoff game in the week leading up to the first Bucs-Panthers meeting. That worked for the next four weeks and the Bucs will try to make it work one more time so they can keep playing in January.

"One-game-at-a-time mentality," said Mayfield. "It doesn't change for us. We've got to win this next game in Carolina to win the division and go from there. All you need is to get a chance to get in and we're still sitting right where we need to be. Obviously, would've loved to have done it today with two games left, but it didn't happen. So, one-game mentality and our season is on the line."

Added Lavonte David, the team's longest tenured player and a team captain with his teammates ears: "All of these opportunities don't come around often. You've got to know what's at stake. We've just got to be better, man. We've just got to be better. You can't take this stuff for granted. We worked so hard to get here and we just let it go like that. We can't allow that to happen. We've got to learn from this, look ourselves in the mirror this week, be better, come out better next week and have a better showing."


Getting Right Into Gear – The Buccaneers scored on six of their first seven drives in a 30-12 clubbing of the Jaguars in Week 16. The next Sunday, against New Orleans, they didn't score until their 10th possession. Tampa Bay's defense held the Jaguars down after the offense produced a big lead, never letting it become a contest. Against the Saints, that same defense played well enough in the second half to keep the score from getting out of hand, but the offense had such a slow start that there simply wasn't enough time to catch up. Tampa Bay will be seeking a fast start at Bank of America Stadium to try to put the Panthers on their heels. Carolina's first-quarter scoring differential of -17 is actually better than the Bucs' mark of -28, but the Panthers have a league-worst -90 scoring differential in the second quarter. Can the Bucs' take advantage and get back on track right out of the gate? They may have to capture that coveted division title.

One More Shot at the Rookie – Bryce Young, the first overall pick in the 2023 draft, is likely to be a prominent fixture in the Bucs' existence for years to come as Carolina's franchise quarterback. But this is the last time Tampa Bay's defense will get a crack at rookie quarterback Bryce Young. The former Alabama star has had the ups and downs one would expect from a rookie passer thrown directly into the fire, and his passer rating of 73.6 ranks last among the 32 qualifying quarterbacks in the NFL. However, just two weeks ago in a shootout with the Packers Young had the kind of showing the Panthers are hoping to see a lot of in the coming years, as he completed 23 of 36 passes for 312 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 110.0. The Bucs picked him off once in Week 13 and sacked him four times, the latter of which has been an issue for the Carolina offense. The Panthers rank 30th in sacks allowed per pass play, at 10.92%, and Young has been dropped 59 times. Tampa Bay's defense hopes it can dial the pressure back after going without a single QB hit against New Orleans, and try to put the sort of pressure that might fluster a rookie…which Young will be for the last time on Sunday.

Can Top Performers Finish Strong? – After Sunday's slate of games, select sportswriters around the country will be casting their ballots for such Associated Press awards as Most Valuable Player, Offensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year. Some Buccaneers seemed to enter the discussion about some of these awards during the last month of the season, including Mayfield (Comeback Player of the Year) safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (Defensive Player of the Year) and outside linebacker Yaya Diaby (Defensive Player of the Year). These awards are rare achievements and possibly a bit out of reach for some or all of those Bucs, but they can at least make one final argument, and in the process increase the Bucs' chances of achieving its most important goal of winning Sunday's game. Other Bucs who have shined this year, including wide receiver Mike Evans, running back Rachaad White, linebacker Lavonte David and the kicking duo of Chase McLaughlin and Jake Camarda, could find themselves on Pro Bowl and All-Pro lists and would help their team immensely by finishing the regular season on a high note.

Will Turnovers Be the Key? – They certainly were in the loss to the Saints. The only two Buccaneer drives that entered New Orleans territory in the first three quarters ended in giveaways. Overall, the Buccaneers committed a season-high four turnovers – they hadn't even turned it over three times in a game until Week 17 – contributing to the offense's disjointed effort and a lopsided time-of-possession advantage for the Saints. Tampa Bay went into that game tied for the league lead in turnover differential at plus-10 but are now all the way down to ninth at plus-six. Of course, that's significantly better than the Panthers' negative-seven ratio, which is tied for 23rd in the NFL. The Buccaneers have only had a negative turnover differential in four of their 16 games this season, but they lost all four of those contests. Mayfield has done a very good job of protecting the football while still pushing it down the field when the situation calls for it. Last Sunday marked his first two-interception game as a Buccaneer, one of which was tipped at the line. Despite the Panthers' record, there is a good chance the game on Sunday will be close. Turnovers could swing the tide. They often do.


1. Panthers T Ikem Ekwonu vs. Buccaneers OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka

As noted above, the Panthers have had some problems protecting the quarterback, allowing 62 sacks overall (59 on Young, three on Andy Dalton), tied for the third most in the league. The Panthers used the sixth-overall pick on Ikem Ekwonu with the thought that he would step right in as a franchise left tackle to pair with solid right tackle Taylor Moton. Ekwonu is a powerful run blocker with an aggressive approach, long arms and versatility. He has struggled some in his sophomore campaign, leading to some outside speculation that he might be moved inside to guard at some point in his career. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Ekwonu had given up 10.5 sacks this season heading into last week's game in Jacksonville. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, who earlier this season got flipped on the depth chart with Yaya Diaby at one of the starting OLB spots, was back in the game-opening lineup in Week 16 as he stepped in for an injured Shaq Barrett. Barrett was sidelined by a groin injury and there's no guarantee he'll be ready to play by Sunday in Charlotte, so the Bucs may need more from their third-year edge rusher in the season finale. So far this season, Shoyinka has 40 tackles, 4.0 sacks, seven tackles for loss, one pass defensed and one fumble recovery. His most recent sack came in Week 12 against the Colts. NGS credits Tryon-Shoyinka with 25 QB pressures this season, two of which have led to turnovers, and have him clocked at a strong average get-off at the snap of 0.86 seconds.

2. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin vs. Panthers CB Jaycee Horn

The last time the Buccaneers and Panthers met, in Week 13, Chris Godwin finished the game with zero catches for the first time since 2018. Godwin did score a critical fourth-quarter touchdown on a 19-yard end-around, but some concerns were voiced about his lack of targets. There has been no such concern since, as Godwin has been targeted 38 times over the last four games and has produced 24 catches for 367 yards and a touchdown. He has become a go-to target on third downs and frequently succeeds in moving the chains. Godwin had 55 first downs on 98 catches in 2021 and 53 first downs on 104 catches in 2022. This year, his reception total is "only" at 77, but 51 of those have produced a new set of downs. As noted above, the Panthers have the NFL's third-ranked pass defense in 2023, and it's certainly better when Jaycee Horn has been in the lineup. When he's on the field, Horn has often played to the expectations of being the eighth-overall pick in the 2021 draft, but he's had very poor injury luck early in his career. This season, he missed 10 games due to a hamstring injury but returned just in time for the first Bucs-Panthers game and had five tackles and a pass defensed. Horn is currently dealing with a toe injury and he did not play in Week 17 but he was active. Assuming he's all the way back by Sunday, Horn will be a tough challenge for Godwin due to his size, length and willingness to get physical.

3. Panthers QB Bryce Young vs. Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield Jr.

The Buccaneers gave Young one of his 10 interceptions this season in Week 13, and the culprit was none other than do-it-all safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Winfield's outsized impact on the Bucs' defense is well represented by a stat line that is stuffed in a combination of ways rarely seen in the NFL: 117 tackles, five tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, seven QB hits, three interceptions, 12 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. Winfield plays with great anticipation, has outstanding closing speed on deep passes and blitzes into the backfield and has a nose for the ball, particularly when it hits the ground. That's the kind of player who can be a nightmare for rookie quarterbacks who are still trying to acclimate to the speed and talent level of the NFL. Of course, Young isn't just any rookie but an extremely talented and athletic quarterback whose traits were tantalizing enough to make him the first overall pick despite his outlier size (5-10, 204). If the Panthers can give him a clean pocket and good sightlines on Sunday, he may be able to take advantage of his poise, field-reading ability and accuracy to put together a strong final game in his rookie season.

4. Buccaneers G Cody Mauch vs. Panthers DT Derrick Brown

Mauch is finishing up a rookie season that has seen him on a steady upward trajectory as he makes the transition from tackle to guard and from North Dakota State to the NFL. In fact, one of his most recent games, the Bucs' Week 16 win at Green Bay may have been his best performance yet. NFL Next Gen Stats say he allowed zero pressures of Baker Mayfield on 39 pass-blocking snaps. Mauch was in the starting lineup at right guard in Week One and he hasn't left it since; he's one of only four rookie offensive linemen in the NFL who have played 100% of their team's offensive snaps. The seventh-overall pick in the 2020 draft, Derrick Brown can play all over the Panthers' interior front but he more often shades to the left side, which would put him in the vicinity of Mauch. Actually, it's likely Mauch will have assistance in this assignment because the powerful, 320-pound Brown often draws double-team blocks. When he does, according to NGS, the Panthers' pass rush generates more pressure than when he's not double-teamed. Brown is second on the Carolina defense with 96 tackles, a very high number for an interior lineman that suggests he is very good at shedding blockers and getting into running lanes at the right time. He has just 1.0 sack this year but his presence clearly helps the Panthers' other defenders and he has 13 quarterback hits. Brown is quick off the snap for such a big man and such a solid anchor that he is difficult to move on running plays.

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