After failing to secure the 2021 NFC South title in a 9-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 15, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will hit the road for another division contest in Week 16, and another chance to clinch a playoff spot. Tampa Bay's next assignment is a road game in Charlotte, the first of two meetings with the Carolina Panthers in the last two weeks of the season. That game will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, December 26.
The Buccaneers could have locked up the NFC South with a Sunday night win over the Saints but had their hopes delayed by at least one week. Tampa Bay still leads the division by three games with three weeks to play, which means they can settle the matter next Sunday with a win over the Panthers no matter what else happens across the league. The Bucs' loss to the Saints did significantly hurt their chances to take the top spot in the overall NFC standings and get the first-round playoff bye that comes with it.
The Panthers fell to 5-9 on Sunday with their 31-14 loss to the Bills in Buffalo and stand 13th overall in the conference standings, two games behind the final Wild Card spot. As such, Carolina is a long shot to make the playoffs in 2021 but they can certainly do a lot to make the road tougher for the Buccaneers over the final three weeks of the regular season. After their game next Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, the Buccaneers and Panthers will meet at Raymond James Stadium in the regular-season finale for both teams on January 9.
The Buccaneers beat the Panthers twice last season by a combined score of 77-40, both times with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback for Carolina. Since then, the Panthers have cycled through several other options at quarterback before ending up back where they left off in 2019. Carolina first traded for former Jets first-round pick Sam Darnold and shipped Bridgewater to Denver. Darnold started the Panthers' first nine games before landing on injured reserve, after which the team re-signed the most prominent player in their history, Cam Newton.
P.J. Walker started the Panthers' 10th contest, a win over Arizona, but Newton has opened the last four, all losses. Since returning to Carolina, Newton has compiled a 67.8 passer rating by completing 62 of 113 passes for 623 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. Newton also remains a dangerous weapon on the ground, running 41 times for 183 yards and five scores. The Panthers are also without their star running back, Christian McCaffrey, who is on injured reserve and won't return this season.
Carolina did come into Week 15 with the NFL's second-ranked defense and top-ranked pass defense, giving up just 177.7 air yards per game before Josh Allen threw for 210 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday. The edge duo of Brian Burns and Haason Reddick have combined for 20 sacks and 35 quarterback hits and the Carolina defense has produced 36 sacks overall. The Panthers traded for former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore in October and the former Patriot corner is one of three different Panther defenders who have multiple picks this season.
The Bucs had hoped to win the division in Week 15 with the very direct result of beating the team that had won it the last four years. With that opportunity missed, Tampa Bay's next shot is against another heated division rival on their turf in Week 16.