Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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2021 Game Preview: Panthers-Buccaneers, Week 18

The Buccaneers and Panthers will square off for the second time in three weeks and if Tampa Bay can complete the sweep they'll have a chance to start the postseason from a better spot

wk18

The 2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have matched the 12-4 regular-season record of their 2002 Super Bowl-winning team, tying for the most wins in team history. But the season isn't over yet.

The NFL went to 17 games this year, which means there's one more week of play before the postseason and the Buccaneers will finish with an admittedly weird-looking final record of either 13-4 or 12-5. Either one will be good enough for the NFC South title, which they clinched two weeks ago, and even with a loss the Buccaneers are likely to be at least the third seed in the conference playoff field. However, a win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium coupled with a loss by the Rams to the 49ers at the same time would move the Buccaneers up to the NFC's second seed (more on the playoff-seeding chase below), and that is a goal for which the team is ready to go all out.

"It's very important to win on Sunday," said tight end Rob Gronkowski. "We have to go out there and perform to our best. A couple of things are on the line [like] our playoff seeding. That's definitely a factor. You want to be the highest seed you possibly can be, and we have a chance to move up in the seeding, so that's very important. We have to go out there and play some good football and give it our best chance to have the highest possible seed we can for the playoffs."

Standing in the way of a team-record 13th win is the Panthers, a team the Buccaneers beat in Charlotte by 26 points just two weeks ago. Carolina brings a six-game losing streak into the season finale, but they certainly haven't been hapless in that span, though they have had to deal with a lot of injuries and COVID-list additions. The Buccaneers are coming off a narrow win in the Meadowlands against a four-win Jets team and have seen how their opponents have raised their level of play against the defending champions all season. The Bucs don't believe they have played down to the less-accomplished teams on their schedule; rather, it's the opposite.

"Not necessarily," said linebacker Kevin Minter. "A lot of people play up to us. The Jets, they low-key played one of their best games of the year against us. We knew that going into this season that we were going to have a target on our back each and every Sunday, so we've just got to carry that and keep improving every week. Whatever happens, happens."

That definitely includes the Panthers, who beat the Arizona Cardinals in November and possess the league's second-ranked defense along with such talented offensive players as wide receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson and running back Chuba Hubbard. The debut season of Sam Darnold in Carolina hasn't gone as well as hoped but he has had some strong outings and will surely be motivated to put together another one in the final week. The exact same thing could have been said about Jets rookie Zach Wilson last week and Wilson easily had one of his best games against the Buccaneers. The Bucs' lopsided win two weeks ago should not be seen as a guarantee Sunday's game will unfold in the same way.

"Every game is different. Every week those players are getting paid, so they're going to bring it," said safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. This is going to be a big game for them and it's also a big game for us. Whatever we did last week or the week before, it doesn't matter. It's a new game, so we've got to be on our A-game."

This is the second year in a row that the Buccaneers are playing the same opponent twice during the last three weeks of the regular season. Tampa Bay beat Atlanta in Weeks 15 and 17 last season, but one of those two games was very close and required a huge second-half comeback. Getting the same opponent in almost back-to-back weekends is a little uncommon, and it begs the question of how much each team will try to surprise the other one with something new.

"It's a little different," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "We did it last year with the Falcons and it's happened before. We know them and they know us. You still have to have wrinkles and different things from that game, but it's not like putting in a whole different game plan because of who they are and [the fact that] you just played them. You do what you do best."

The Bucs have done one thing this season as well as they ever have before: Win games. The road to a second straight Super Bowl title is going to be a very, very difficult one, but that's an issue for next week. For now, the Buccaneers will use the 17th game to try to get a 13th win for the first time ever, and with it possibly a better starting point for that playoff run.

GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS

Carolina Panthers (5-11) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4)

Sunday, January 9, 4:25 p.m. ET

Raymond James Stadium (capacity: 65,618)

Tampa, Florida

Television: CBS

TV Broadcast Team: Jim Nantz (play-by-play), Tony Romo (analyst), Tracy Wolfson (reporter)

Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station

Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)

GAMEDAY INFORMATION

Coming to the game or enjoying pregame festivities? Check out our Tailgate Packages or visit the Buccaneers Gameday Page for everything you need to know about Bucs Beach and more!

ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES

The Buccaneers, trying to get consecutive season sweeps of the Panthers for the first time since the two became division mates in 2002, kept that possibility alive with a 32-6 win in Charlotte just two weeks ago. That decision also pulled the Bucs closer in the all-time series, which Carolina now leads, 24-18. The Panthers have also won 12 of the 20 games played between the two teams in Tampa, all of which took place at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers did play Carolina twice before the construction of Raymond James Stadium, but both were on the road, including a contest in Death Valley that the Bucs won, 20-13, in the Panthers' inaugural season.

Since Tampa Bay and Carolina became neighbors in the brand-new NFC South Division almost two decades ago, their head-to-head battle has traditionally been one-sided, though that side often flips back and forth. From 2002-17, 13 of the 16 season series between these two teams ended in a sweep, including every one from 2009 through 2017. It went Carolina's way in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. The Bucs got the sweep in 2002, 2010, 2012 and 2016. Interestingly, the three splits came in years the Buccaneers either made the playoffs (2005, 2007) or really should have (2008…which ended in a four-game losing streak after a 9-3 start). After a pair of splits in 2018 and 2019, the series went back into sweep mode, with Tampa Bay winning both in 2020.

Now the Bucs have a chance for another one after their 32-6 win at Bank of America Stadium in Week 16. Tampa Bay's defense sacked quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Cam Newton a total of 12 times and allowed just two field goals, and safety Jordan Whitehead had a key interception and three pass break-ups. Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 55-yard touchdown jaunt, the Bucs' longest run of the year, started the scoring and emerging wideout Cyril Grayson accounted for 95 yards of offense, including a 62-yard reception.

Last year, the Bucs' September win at home against Carolina was the first of 15 they would stack up on their way to a Super Bowl championship, and the first win as a Buccaneer for Tom Brady. Leonard Fournette paced the offense with 116 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns and Carlton Davis and Jordan Whitehead each had interceptions off Teddy Bridgewater in a 31-17 decision. The rematch in Charlotte in November was a high-scoring affair that included the longest run in Buccaneers' history, Ronald Jones' 98-yard touchdown dash. Incredibly, the Buccaneers scored on 10 straight possessions to pull away from the Panthers for a 46-23 win.

In 2019, the Buccaneers secured a tight win in Charlotte on a Thursday night in Week Two when Vernon Hargreaves knocked Christian McCaffrey out of bounds two yards shy of the sticks on an all-or-nothing fourth-down run off a direct snap. That 20-14 Bucs win was balanced four weeks later by a 37-26 win for Carolina in a game played in London.

The 2019 game in London officially counted as a home game for the Buccaneers. It marked the first time the Bucs had faced the Panthers in a game outside the country, but the two teams did once meet outside of North Carolina, at Clemson's Memorial Stadium in the aforementioned 1995 series debut. The Bucs' prime-time win in September of 2019 included a three-sack performance from Shaq Barrett, Chris Godwin's 121-yard, one-touchdown outing and a strong rushing effort by Peyton Barber.

Perhaps the most notable wins for Tampa Bay in the series with Carolina came in 2002 and 2005. At the midpoint of the 2002 Super Bowl campaign, the Buccaneers were coming off a deflating loss in Philadelphia (again) and had to play at Carolina without their quarterback, Brad Johnson, who woke up with the flu. Defense dominated and the Bucs were trailing 9-6 late in the fourth quarter before Martin Gramatica saved the day with two long field goals. In 2005, the Buccaneers were in the middle of a late-season three-game road swing when they went to Bank of America Stadium and won a battle for first place by a 20-10 score. Ronde Barber punctuated that game with a sack and a critical interception, becoming the first cornerback ever to reach 40 interceptions and 25 sacks in his career.

NOTABLE CONNECTIONS

  • Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht was a member of the Panthers' scouting staff in 1998.
  • Tampa Bay's inside linebackers coach, Mike Caldwell, played 11 seasons as a linebacker in the NFL, and the last of those was in Carolina in 2003.
  • Buccaneers CB Ross Cockrell played for the Panthers in 2019, appearing in 14 games with 11 starts and recording two interceptions.
  • Carolina Tight Ends Coach Brian Angelichio held the same position on Greg Schiano's staff with the Buccaneers in 2012 and 2013.
  • Carolina Defensive Line Coach Frank Okam played in the NFL as a defensive tackle, seeing action in 25 games with six starts from 2008-11. The last 12 of those games and all six of his starts came with the Buccaneers during the 2010-11 seasons. Okam went to training camp with the Giants the following season but did not play again in the NFL.
  • Panthers cornerback Rashaan Melvin began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent with the Buccaneers in 2013. He was with the Bucs throughout 2013 and for the first month of 2014 but did not see action in a regular-season game.
  • Carolina linebacker Julian Stanford had a stint on Tampa Bay's practice squad in 2015.

SENIOR COACHING STAFFS

Tampa Bay:

  • Head Coach Bruce Arians
  • Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin
  • Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles
  • Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich
  • Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong

Carolina:

  • Head Coach Matt Rhule
  • Offensive Coordinator/Senior Offensive Assistant/Running Backs Jeff Nixon
  • Defensive Coordinator Phil Snow
  • Special Teams Coordinator Chase Blackburn

KEY 2021 ROSTER ADDITIONS

Buccaneers:

  • S Andrew Adams (FA)
  • RB Kenjon Barner (FA)
  • RB Le'Veon Bell (FA)
  • RB Giovani Bernard (FA)
  • LB K.J. Britt (5th-round draft pick)
  • WR Jaelon Darden (4th-round draft pick)
  • CB Pierre Desir (FA)
  • CB Dee Delaney (FA)
  • OL Robert Hainsey (3rd-round draft pick)
  • WR Breshad Perriman (FA)
  • CB Rashard Robinson (FA)
  • CB Richard Sherman (FA)
  • LB Grant Stuard (7th-round pick)
  • QB Kyle Trask (2nd-round draft pick)
  • OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (1st-round draft pick)

Panthers:

  • RB Ameer Abdullah (FA)
  • CB A.J. Bouye (FA)
  • T Brady Christensen (3rd-round draft pick)
  • QB Sam Darnold (T-NYJ)
  • G Pat Elflein (UFA)
  • T Cameron Erving (UFA)
  • DE Morgan Fox (UFA)
  • CB Stephon Gilmore (T-NE)
  • K Lirim Hajrullahu (FA)
  • CB Jaycee Horn (1st-round draft pick…on injured reserve)
  • RB Chuba Hubbard (4th-round draft pick)
  • DT DaQuan Jones (UFA)
  • LB Frankie Luvu (FA0
  • G Michael Jordan (W-CIN)
  • WR Terrace Marshall (2nd-round draft pick)
  • CB Rashaan Melvin (FA)
  • QB Cam Newton (FA)
  • DT Daviyon Nixon (5th-round draft pick…on injured reserve)
  • OLB Haason Reddick (UFA)
  • CB Keith Taylor (5th-roound draft pick)
  • TE Tommy Tremble (3rd-round draft pick)

ADDITIONAL 2021 CHANGES OF NOTE

Buccaneers:

• While "keeping the band" together on the field for a run at another championship, the Buccaneers also managed to keep their coaching staff almost entirely intact for 2021. The lone departure was Offensive Assistant Antwaan Randle El, who left to coach the receivers on Dan Campbell's staff in Detroit. There were two additions to Arians' staff: Offensive Assistant A.Q. Shipley and Assistant Wide Receivers Coach Thaddeus Lewis.

• Mike Greenberg, who provided invaluable help to Jason Licht in the efforts to keep the Bucs' Super Bowl-winning roster together as the team's director of football administration, was promoted during the offseason to vice president of football administration. Greenberg is entering his 12th year with the team.

• After playing their 2020 home schedule in front of audiences ranging from empty stands to about 25% capacity, the Buccaneers will be at full capacity at Raymond James Stadium in 2021. And we do mean full capacity. The defending champions have already sold out every home game this season; the last time every game at Raymond James Stadium sold out was in 2009.

• The Buccaneers introduced new uniforms in 2020 that were heavily influenced by the look the team had during its first Super Bowl era but also included a brand new alternate set with matching pewter jerseys and pants. That gave the team four combinations last season: pewter on pewter, white on white, white on pewter and red on pewter. The Bucs will use a fifth combination in 2021, with a red jersey over white pants, which they will wear in the Sunday Night Football spotlight at home against the Saints in Week 15.

Panthers:

· The Panthers started the new year by hiring a new general manager, with Scott Fitterer getting the job after a lengthy search that included 15 candidates. Fitterer, who spent 20 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks and was most recently that team's Vice President of Football Operations, replaced Marty Hurney, who had been let go the previous December. The Panthers also hired Dan Morgan, previously the Buffalo Bills' director of player personnel from 2018-20, to be the assistant general manager. Morgan had previously worked with Fitterer in Seattle.

· Carolina didn't make any sweeping alterations to Matt Rhule's coaching staff over the offseason but did make one significant change earlier this month. During their bye week, the Panthers parted ways with Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady, who had left LSU to join Rhule in Carolina in 2020. Rhule subsequently gave the coordinator position and play-calling duties to Jeff Nixon, who had been the senior offensive assistant and running backs coach. Nixon previously called plays under Rhule at Baylor from 2017-19.

· The Panthers did get a new quarterbacks coach in 2021 after Jeff Peetz left to be the offensive coordinator at LSU. Carolina brought in Sean Ryan, who had held the same position for the Texans in 2017-18 and the Lions in 2019-20. Carolina also added two sons of former NFL head coaches to the staff, with Tony Sparano, Jr. coming on as the assistant offensive line coach and Kevin M. Gilbride joining the staff as a defensive analyst. In addition, Frank Okam was promoted from assistant defensive line coach to defensive line coach, replacing Mike Phair.

· Since the Buccaneers last saw the Panthers, Carolina has made not one but two very dramatic moves at quarterback. In April, the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold, sending a 2021 sixth-round pick and 2022 second and fourth-round selections to the Jets for the former third-overall pick in 2018. Carolina then shipped its own 2020 starter, Teddy Bridgewater, to Denver in a separate deal. Darnold started the first nine games before landing on injured reserve with a shoulder ailment. Shortly after that development, the Panthers decided to turn back the clock by signing their former franchise superstar, Cam Newton. Newton had spent the 2020 season in New England after being released by the Panthers but had not played in 2021 after losing a competition for the Patriots' starting job to rookie Mac Jones. Newton has started the Panthers' last four games, all losses. Darnold recently returned to practice and could potentially be activated this week.

· The Panthers have also had to turn to Plan B in the backfield after injuries wiped out most of Christian McCaffrey's season for the second year in a row. McCaffrey missed time early with a hamstring injury and played in just seven games before an ankle injury shut him down for the rest of 2021. Rookie fourth-rounder Chuba Hubbard has taken over the lead role in the running game and the team also signed Ameer Abdullah in October after he was let go by the Vikings.

TOP STORYLINES

Planting Seeds – The Buccaneers have a division title, a guaranteed home date to start the playoffs and no chance of getting the NFC's only first-round bye. However, they still have one more very valuable prize to chase in Week 18, and that is providing plenty of motivation for the regular-season finale. Bruce Arians insisted he would not be "balancing" thoughts of resting players with the pursuit of that last goal. "There is none. There is no balance," he said on Monday. "You play to win. You play to get that second seed, that's huge. We're not resting anybody. We're playing to win." The Buccaneers come into the weekend ranked third in the overall NFC standings but would move up to the second seed if they beat the Panthers and the 49ers beat the Rams. The NFL moved the Bucs-Panthers game from 1:00 to 4:25 specifically to have it take place at the exact same time that West Coast showdown is being played, ensuring that neither playoff contender would know before kickoff if a win was still important. The value of the second seed is obvious: Winning your division guarantees you at least one home game but getting the second seed means you will get a second playoff contest on your own field if you win the first one. And if the team that faces Green Bay in the second round, following the Packers' locked-in first-round bye, manages to pull off the upset the second seed would even have a shot at playing the conference championship game at home. All of this is very much on the Bucs' minds as they await the Panthers' arrival on Sunday.

Another Backfield Invasion? – When the Buccaneers and Panthers met two weeks ago, one of the top factors in producing the visitors' 26-point victory was the massive difference in pass protection between the two offenses. Tom Brady was not sacked and was only hit twice on 30 dropbacks even though Carolina has a pass rush ranked in the league's top five. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense sacked Carolina quarterbacks Cam Newton and Sam Darnold a total of seven times and hit them 11 times. That was a season-high sack total for the Buccaneers and it helped hold the Panthers to just 206 net passing yards. The following week, Carolina surrendered another seven sacks to the Saints, jumping their sacks-allowed-per-pass-play rate to 8.99%, seventh worst in the league. Bucs edge rusher Shaq Barrett got one of those seven sacks in Week 16 before suffering a knee injury right before halftime, but he remains unavailable in Week 18. Fellow starter Jason Pierre-Paul has also missed the last two games with the shoulder injury that has bothered him most of the season. However, the Buccaneers may be able to get pressure on presumptive starter Darnold again in a different way. Four of those seven sacks in Week 16 were recorded by interior defensive linemen, led by a career-best 2.5 from Will Gholston. Against the Saints, the Panthers were once again plagued by pressure coming up the middle. The trio of Gholston, Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh could once again be the key to slowing down Carolina.

Panthers' Priorities – The Buccaneers found out firsthand last Sunday that even a team closer to the first pick in the draft than to a playoff spot can summon up plenty of motivation and highly competitive play for a late-season game, especially against the defending champs. Tampa Bay narrowly escaped defeat against the four-win Jets and will be expecting the same sort of challenge from the five-win Panthers this coming Sunday. That said, the Panthers have to be contemplating the future to at least some degree as they bring their disappointing 2021 campaign to a close. Head Coach Matt Rhule is hoping to see his team produce outwardly visible results of the progress he is certain the Panthers are making in his second year at the helm. And Carolina has to find an answer at the game's most important position after alternating between 2021 trade acquisition Sam Darnold and returned franchise superstar Cam Newton. Rhule announced early this week that Darnold would get a second straight start in Week 18 as the Panthers already know what they have in Newton. Darnold, the former first-round Jets pick, started out the season hot but slumped and then spent time on injured reserve with a shoulder ailment. He enters the last game of his first season in Charlotte with a 70.2 passer rating and a 7-12 TD-INT ratio. Carolina will be picking in the top 10 of next year's draft even if it beats Tampa Bay on Sunday, and they may still be gathering evidence as to whether or not they should consider a new franchise quarterback in the first round.

Brady's (New) Bunch (Again) – Tom Brady compiled his third 400-yard passing day of the season against the Jets in Week 17 and he did it throwing to the likes of Cyril Grayson, Tyler Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, Breshad Perriman and Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who combined to account for 216 receiving yards. In recent weeks, the Buccaneers offense has had to adjust after injuries to Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette and Mike Evans, though Evans returned to play 56 snaps against the Jets. The shuffling will continue in Week 18, primarily because Antonio Brown left the team and Ronald Jones sustained an ankle injury. Grayson is likely to continue in his suddenly amplified role, but the Buccaneers may need some new players to step up on offense. It could be Vaughn and Bell if Jones is sidelined. It could be Perriman, who only had 11 snaps last week but is now listed as a starter on Tampa Bay's depth chart. It could be Scotty Miller, who hasn't seen much playing time in 2021 after recording 501 receiving yards in 2020. It could be the team's talented trio of tight ends, who made their mark in Week 17 with Rob Gronkowski's 115 yards and Cam Brate's second touchdown in as many games. O.J. Howard has the most untapped potential in that group and could factor in more in Week 18 and the playoffs. The only certainty is that the Bucs' offense won't look the same this week as it did just a week ago, or two weeks before that.

Defensive Trends – The Buccaneers have won five of their last six games and have held their last five opponents to an average of 16.6 points, but two usually reliable hallmarks of their defense have gone somewhat missing down the stretch. At one point this season it looked as if the Bucs were headed to their third straight number-one ranking in rush defense, but they have actually allowed more than 112 ground yards per game over their last 11 outings, including 150 to the Jets last Sunday. And the Buccaneers still rank sixth in the league with 27 takeaways this season, but only four of those have come in the last five games, and one was last week's fumble on the Jets' last play of the game. Tampa Bay's defense has not produced multiple turnovers in a game since Week 12 and hasn't scored a touchdown of a takeaway in that span, either. The Bucs managed to beat the Falcons, Bills, Panthers and Jets with just one turnover in each game but can't expect that formula to continue working in the postseason.

KEY MATCHUPS

1. Buccaneers RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn vs. Panthers S Jeremy Chinn

Vaughn, the Bucs' second-year back, has 151 rushing yards this season, and 55 of those came on one carry against the Panthers two weeks ago in Charlotte. There's a good chance, however, that Vaughn will be the lead back this Sunday with Ronald Jones starting the week in a walking boot due to his sprained ankle. Leonard Fournette is not yet eligible to return from injured reserve and the only other running back on the current active roster is the recently-signed Le'Veon Bell. Bruce Arians has repeatedly insisted that Vaughn is a very talented runner, and he recently predicted that the former Vanderbilt star will eventually be a "lead dog" in the NFL, particularly as his pass-catching and pass protection improves. He'll likely get a chance to show why Arians believes that on Sunday. To succeed, Vaughn will need to steer clear of Chinn, another second-year player, as much as possible. Chinn has been a bright spot for the Panthers in 2021 and one of the main reasons their defense is ranked second in the league in yards allowed. Chinn leads the team with 106 tackles and also has a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, five passes defensed and six tackles for loss. A team 67 of those 106 tackles have come against ballcarriers on running plays. The Panthers moved Chinn to his natural safety position this year after he largely played linebacker as a rookie, but he is still deployed near the line of scrimmage on a high percentage of his plays.

2. Panthers C Pat Elflein vs. Buccaneers NT Vita Vea

When these two teams met in Week 16, we used this space to highlight the matchup between Bucs veteran lineman Will Gholston and Panthers guard Michael Jordan, a midseason practice squad call-up. That proved prescient as Gholston racked up a career-high 2.5 sacks in that contest. That will be a matchup worth watching again but this time will try to send Vea some mojo by highlighting his battle with the Panthers center. Elflein actually started this season, his first with the Panthers, as the team's left guard but moved to the pivot when Matt Paradis landed on injured reserve. Though he missed the first Bucs-Panthers contest while on the COVID list, Elflein returned last week but couldn't help slow down a Saints pass rush that racked up seven sacks. Still, the former Lion, Viking and Jet is an experienced blocker who started his first two seasons in Minnesota at center. This week, Elflein will draw the unenviable task of trying to hold off the moving mountain that is Vea. Vea had one of the Bucs' seven sacks two weeks ago in Charlotte and is a challenge for any center with his 350-pound frame and surprisingly nimble feet. The Panthers have had serious protection issues of late, some of that due to injury and COVID absences, but with a rookie (Brady Christensen) now taking over at left tackle Carolina will need a veteran like Elflein to anchor the line and give Darnold some time to throw.

3. Buccaneers WR Cyril Grayson vs. Panthers CB Keith Taylor

There have been times this season where a Cyril Grayson-Keith Taylor matchup wouldn't have much effect on the outcome of a Bucs-Panthers game, or even happen at all. But Grayson, on the practice squad for much of the past two years, has emerged as a legitimate force in Tampa Bay's offense and Taylor, a fifth-round rookie, has been called on to play a much bigger role following a long run of injuries to the Panthers' cornerback group. From Weeks 11-15, for instance, Taylor only played 43 defensive snaps and Grayson didn't see any action at all. Last week, however, with Stephon Gilmore sidelined by a groin injury and A.J. Bouye, Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn all on injured reserve, Taylor played 100% of the Panthers' defensive snaps and turned in six tackles. Gilmore is a question mark again this week due to that injury and C.J. Henderson didn't play a single snap last week, so Taylor will likely be heavily utilized. The same is true for Grayson, especially after the departure of Antonio Brown, and he is proving each successive week that he has successfully transformed from a track star into a real NFL player. Bruce Arians said this week that Grayson already had the necessary speed and strength to play wide receiver in the league when he got to Tampa but has rounded out his game by improving his hands and his route-running.

4. Panthers QB Sam Darnold vs. Buccaneers S Jordan Whitehead

Darnold would surely like to close his first season in Carolina on a high note and improve his chances of being the starter again in 2022, but Whitehead will be working hard to make sure that doesn't happen. When the Bucs played in Charlotte two weeks ago, Whitehead was a 60-minute menace for Darnold and Cam Newton, racking up seven tackles, one interception, three passes defensed and a quarterback hit. If Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles dials up a similar game plan to the one he used against the Panthers in Week 16, it will involve lots of blitzing and Whitehead will likely get an opportunity to get up close and personal with Darnold in the backfield. Darnold is nearing the end of his fourth season after originally being drafted by the New York Jets third overall in 2018. Earlier this season, Darnold showed the capability of putting up some big games, helping the Jets to a 3-0 start while throwing three touchdown passes and rushing for three other scores. However, has not thrown a touchdown passes since returning from his shoulder injury two weeks ago and has been held to an average of 5.5 yards per pass attempt in that span.

INJURY REPORT

DNP: Did not participate in practice

LP: Limited participation in practice

FP: Full participation in practice

NL: Not listed

Buccaneers:

· OLB Shaquil Barrett (knee) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.

· WR Jaelon Darden (illness) – WEDS: LP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· S Mike Edwards (elbow) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· WR Mike Evans (hamstring) – WEDS: LP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· C Ryan Jensen (shoulder) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.

· RB Ronald Jones (ankle) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.

· CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (illness) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· DL Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.

· P Bradley Pinion (right hip) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· CB Rashard Robinson (groin) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.

· CB Richard Sherman (Achilles) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Doubtful.

· ILB Grant Stuard (elbow) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· DL Ndamukong Suh (not injury related) – WEDS: NL; THURS: NL; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.

· RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn (ribs) – WEDS: FP; THURS: FP; FRI: FP. Game Status: Not listed.

· WR Justin Watson (quadriceps) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Out.

Panthers:

· WR Robby Anderson (quadriceps) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Questionable.

· DT Derrick Brown (elbow) – WEDS: NL; THURS: LP; FRI: LP. Game Status: Questionable.

· S Sean Chandler (groin) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP; FRI: DNP. Game Status: Doubtful.

· CB Stephon Gilmore (groin) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: Placed on reserve/COVID-19 list.

· DE Yetur Gross-Matos (illness) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: Placed on reserve/COVID-19 list.

· CB C.J. Henderson (knee) – WEDS: LP; THURS: LP. FRI: LP. Game Status: Not listed.

· WR Shi Smith (illness) – WEDS: DNP; THURS: Placed on reserve/COVID-19 list.

WEATHER FORECAST

Partly cloudy, high of 84, low of 64, 10% chance of rain, 69% humidity, winds out of the SSE at 5-10 mph.

GAME REFEREE

Head referee: Tony Corrente (27th season, 24th as referee)

BETTING LINE

·    Favorite: Buccaneers (-8.0)

·    Over/Under: 41.5

INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS

Buccaneers-

Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 120

Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans, 12

Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 4,990

Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 100.5

Rushing Yards: RB Leonard Fournette, 812

Receptions: WR Chris Godwin, 98

Receiving Yards: WR Chris Godwin, 1,103

Interceptions: S Mike Edwards, 3

Sacks: OLB Shaquil Barrett, 10.0

Tackles: LB Devin White, 124

Panthers-

Points Scored: K Zane Gonzalez*, 82

Touchdowns: QB Sam Darnold/QB Cam Newton/RB Chuba Hubbard, 5

Passing Yards: QB Sam Darnold, 2,308

Passer Rating: QB Sam Darnold, 70.2

Rushing Yards: RB Chuba Hubbard, 564

Receptions: WR D.J. Moore, 86

Receiving Yards: WR D.J. Moore, 1,070

Interceptions: CB Stephon Gilmore/CB Donte Jackson/LB Shaq Thompson, 2

Sacks: OLB Haason Reddick, 11.0

Tackles: S Jeremy Chinn, 106

(* currently on injured reserve)

TEAM STAT RANKINGS

Buccaneers-

Scoring Offense: 2nd (29.4 ppg)

Total Offense: 1st (405.8 ypg)

Passing Offense: 1st (306.6 ypg)

Rushing Offense: 27th (99.2 ypg)

First Downs Per Game: 2nd (23.9)

Third-Down Pct.: 2nd (47.6%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 1st (3.18%)

Red Zone TD Pct.: 2nd (64.6%)

Scoring Defense: 10th (21.0 ppg)

Total Defense: 14th (332.4 ypg)

Passing Defense: 22nd (240.9 ypg)

Rushing Defense: 3rd (91.4 ypg)

First Downs Allowed Per Game: 19th (20.4)

Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 15th (39.2%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 11th (7.06%)

Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 10th (52.7%)

Turnover Margin: t-7th (+8)

Panthers-

Scoring Offense: 29th (17.9 ppg)

Total Offense: 30th (297.8 ypg)

Passing Offense: 29th (189.5 ypg)

Rushing Offense: 21st (108.3 ypg)

First Downs Per Game: t-24th (19.0)

Third-Down Pct.: 26th (36.2%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 26th (8.99%)

Red Zone TD Pct.: 2418th (53.5%)

Scoring Defense: 19th (22.7 ppg)

Total Defense: 2nd (299.5 ypg)

Passing Defense: 2nd (183.9 ypg)

Rushing Defense: 20th (115.6 ypg)

First Downs Allowed Per Game: 4th (18.1)

Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 10th (37.9%)

Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 4th (7.98%)

Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 26th (65.3%)

Turnover Margin: t-28th (-11)

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

  • Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes in the Bucs' win over the Jets and now has 40 TDs in 2021, just as he finished with in 2020 to shatter the Bucs' single-season record. A 17th game in the schedule now gives Brady a chance to break his own record and also to break a tie with Josh Freeman for the second most career touchdown passes in franchise history. Brady also enters the final weekend of NFL play with the league lead in both touchdown passes and passing yards (4,990), with a two-TD lead and a 342-yard lead over the Rams' Matthew Stafford in each category.
  • Brady's 4,990 passing yards are the second most in a single season in franchise history. He needs 120 more on Sunday to surpass Jameis Winston's team record of 5,109 passing yards in 2019. Just 10 yards would make Brady the second quarterback in NFL history to have multiple 5,000-yard seasons, though Stafford could also join that list with a 352-yard outing against the 49ers. Drew Brees, with five, is currently the only player with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons.
  • Tight end Cam Brate caught his 33rd career touchdown pass in last Sunday's win over the Jets and is now just one behind Ring of Honor member Jimmie Giles for second place on the team's all-time list in that category.
  • WR Mike Evans is already the first player in NFL history to begin his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He is 54 yards away from extending that streak to eight seasons. If he does so, he will also became just the sixth player have eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons at any point in their careers. Four of the other five – Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison – are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the fifth, Torry Holt, is a finalist for that honor this year.
  • Evans also caught his 12th touchdown pass last Sunday in the Meadowlands. He could break his own record of 13 TD receptions (set last year at 13) and the franchise's overall single-season touchdown record (shared at 13 with James Wilder) with two on Sunday against the Panthers.

NOTABLY QUOTABLE

  • Head Coach Bruce Arians on the possibility of taking starters out of the game on Sunday if the Buccaneers can get a large lead: "Oh, I would hope that would happen. Yeah, it happened three times this year, but the thing is who do you take out? Because you can't take them all out. You only dress 47. You can't have all of your second string go in because there's not enough of them. It's a time where this guy is a little nicked up and get him out of there. I hope that would happen, but I don't anticipate it."
  • Tight end Rob Gronkowski on how Tom Brady helps new players step into bigger roles on offense: "I would say that develops throughout practice. If they're not on the same page, you see Tom go over and talk to them. He does the same thing with me if I ran a route that he thought I was going to be [here], but I was really over there. He's going to come over to you and talk to you like, 'Hey, why were you there and what were you thinking?' That's how he gets on the same page as you so then you're ready for the game. That's what he does with those receivers too. That's what he's been doing with whoever is in that week making sure they're on the same page. It kind of develops throughout practice and that's where you develop the chemistry."
  • Inside linebacker Kevin Minter on if the team still has confidence it can win it all despite some recent adversity: "Absolutely. Like you alluded to, it's hard. We aren't going to act like it isn't. But at the same time, we've been there before now. They counted us out last year. It's almost like that is what they are supposed to do – count us out. It makes us no mind. We are going to go to work every day, keep improving and we're just going to keep stacking these wins. We will see who comes out on top."
  • Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh on the challenges the Panthers present to the Bucs' defense: "I think defensively we have a tough task ahead of us. I think we've lacked tremendously when it comes to our run game. It's something that we pride ourselves in and we haven't prided ourselves enough to really hone into the details. This is a copycat league and teams are finding ways to repeat plays against us and we have not stepped them. This is going to be a big test for us going against a team that wants to run the ball, and they made a point to do that against the New Orleans Saints. We didn't accomplish our particular goal of stopping the run when we played against the Jets. Ultimately, it's about stopping the run and then transitioning from that standpoint."
  • Safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. on how much having all the team's anticipated starters back in the secondary will help in the weeks ahead: "I think it will help a lot. I've been playing with these guys for almost two years now. This year we were kind of rotating because different guys were getting hurt, but I've played with pretty much everyone so I kind of know how everyone plays. It's definitely going to be good when everybody is healthy and back up there."

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