The NFL schedule for next fall won't be announced until April, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are planning to start their 2016 slate on Sunday.
Technically, the Buccaneers will finish off their 2015 campaign this weekend in Charlotte, as they take on the playoff-bound Carolina Panthers and their NFL-best 14-1 record. Tampa Bay can max out at seven wins in 2015, which would be a significant improvement from a two-win 2014 finish, but hopefully just the beginning of a continued upward trend. Lovie Smith's Buccaneers know they can only go so high until they defeat the Panthers, who have won the last three NFC South titles.
"Two-thousand 15 was good; we're excited about the new year, 2016," said Smith. "We have a chance to start the season off right and be undefeated in 2016. There's one more game, one more opportunity to get better as a team, get better individually and to show everyone exactly what we're going to see coming next year."
Carolina took its first loss of the season last Sunday in Atlanta but remains highly motivated for the finale thanks to one final playoff carrot. The Panthers can nail down home field advantage throughout the NFC side of the playoffs with a win or a loss by Arizona. The Cardinals play host to the Seattle Seahawks in a game that also starts at 4:25. That means both of the NFC's top seeds have to approach the game as a must-win.
The Bucs are glad they'll be getting a Panthers team that has something to gain because they want the full test. Carolina won a 37-23 decision in Tampa in Week Four, largely on the strength of a 5-1 turnover advantage. The Panthers scored 27 points off their five takeaways that afternoon; the Bucs got none, so their 411 yards of offense proved insufficient.
"To truly see exactly where you are, you judge yourself by the best team in the league, the best record in the league right now," said Smith. "Our first game, the turnover ratio was definitely the [problem]. We gave up an interception for a touchdown early on; we let them have a long drive; big plays really hurt us. But looking at that video, we played hard in that game. We were relentless to the football but we just need to make a couple more plays this time."
At the time, that was Carolina's eighth straight regular-season victory, dating back to the last month of 2014. That streak eventually stretched to 18 games, but the Falcons demonstrated last week that the Panthers aren't invincible. The Buccaneers have three wins within the division, including two over Atlanta, and they think they can play the type of game that could earn them a fourth NFC South victory.
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"I think they just came in with an attitude that it was at least going to be a 60-minute game," said Smith of the Falcons' approach to facing the Panthers. "They were going to be physical. And they played hard throughout. They made plays. It was a tight football game, and they finished. They started fast and they finished the game. We want the same type of effort from our club.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Panthers.
"They contained Cam, but they [also] shut down the run. When I say they played well throughout, they contained Cam, kept him in the pocket, played the run, didn't give up any big plays. The things that you normally have to do to win football games, they did. For us, as much as anything, going back to the last game, we lost the turnover ratio. We need to flip that switch – ball security on the offensive side and defensively we haven't taken the ball away enough. We need to do it this weekend."
The Buccaneers will bring a relatively healthy 53-man roster into Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, albeit one without such recent injured reserve additions as Vincent Jackson, Chris Conte and Akeem Spence. They declared the following seven players inactive for the game, none of them due to injury: QB Ryan Griffin, RB Mike James, LB Darius Eubanks, DE Kourtnei Brown, T Gosder Cherilus, TE Tevin Westbrook and TE Brandon Myers.
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There are some notable missing pieces for the Panthers on Sunday, however. Running backs Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker are unable to play, leaving Carolina with a pair of rookie tailbacks in Cameron Artis-Payne and Brandon Wegher. Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert will likely merit some carries, as well. Wide receiver Ted Ginn, the Panthers' top deep threat with 10 touchdown catches, is also unavailable, as is starting safety Kurt Coleman, who has a team-leading seven interceptions.
In addition to Stewart, Whittaker, Ginn and Coleman, the Panthers have deactivated LB David Mayo, WR Kevin Norwood and DE Ryan Delaire. Second-year player Tre Boston will start in Coleman's place on defense while Artis-Payne replaces Stewart and rookie Devin Funchess gets the call in Ginn's absence.
The Buccaneers take on the Panthers on Sunday with kickoff scheduled for 4:25 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Bank of America Stadium and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.