The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are seeking their first 2-0 start since 2005. The last time they started 2-0 with a win against a division foe included was 2000, when they were still part of the NFC Central. And the last time the Bucs were 2-0 with a road win against a division foe was 1997, the breakout season that led to more than a decade of near-annual playoff contention.
Speaking of the postseason, there is this intriguing stat: Since the NFC South was formed in 2002, the Buccaneers have made the playoffs every season in which they won their game at Carolina. Throw in the boost of confidence that a young team would get with a 2-0 start that few outsiders predicted, and the Buccaneers have a chance to make a statement on Sunday against their bitter foes from Charlotte.
At least on paper. In the visiting locker room at Bank of America Stadium, all of these trends and indicators and statistics will be essentially ignored.
"It's not really about 2-0," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It's about the game you're playing today and the Carolina Panthers, playing your best game and facing those guys. You've got to keep the focus at hand. The focus today is the Carolina Panthers; it's not about 2-0, it's not about a winning streak, it's not about what you've done the last couple times you've played these people. You've got to go out there and prove it today. The only thing you can do is play fast, play hard, play smart, play together and all those things will happen."
It's safe to say that the Panthers are just as singularly focused after dropping a hard-fought season opener on the road to the New York Giants last weekend. Carolina could also use that same confidence boost for a young squad; in fact, the Panthers were the only team in the NFL that was younger than the Buccaneers on opening day, using the average age of the 53-man rosters. The Buccaneers aren't using age as an excuse this season, and similarly the Panthers haven't let their youth movement take them away from their well-established style of play under Head Coach John Fox.
"The concern with the Carolina Panthers is always the toughness of their team," said Morris. "You've got to be concerned with all these guys and their physical style of play. It starts with the head coach, and they really take that run with it. We've got a tough game today and we're really fired up about it."
That toughness most obviously manifests itself in the Panthers' rushing attack, which had an average opening-day performance in New York but has recently been tormenting the Buccaneers. But it's also evident in the approach of Carolina's number-one wideout, the small but rock-solid Steve Smith. The Buccaneers are fortunate to be getting their top cornerback, Aqib Talib, back into action after Talib missed the opener while on the reserve/suspended list. Smith and Talib will be matched up quite often on Sunday.
"I think Steve Smith and Aqib will get very well-acquainted here in this game," said Morris with a smile. "They'll have an opportunity to go out there and compete with each other as men, which they always do. Steve Smith is one of the best, if not the best, in our league and our division. He's a great player and we're going to send Aqib out there and let him match up with him and play his best game."
The Buccaneers won their opener against Cleveland without Talib, in part because second-year man E.J. Biggers filled in so capably at left cornerback. Biggers will continue to play a big role on Sunday as the team's nickel back, and he is one of many very young defenders who will be in prime positions for the Buccaneers today. That includes rookie defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, second-year defensive tackle Roy Miller and 23-year-old weakside linebacker Geno Hayes.
Each of those young men had key moments during the second-half surge by Tampa Bay's defense against the Browns.
"Those young guys went out there and were starters," said Morris. "They were playing those roles. E.J. Biggers played left cornerback for Aqib Talib and he was able to go out there and do a nice job and get us the win. He came up with the big interception. It's a great thing to see these young guys develop. I was really pleased with what we were able to do. We were able to get better throughout the game. We got stronger. If we can just go out there and start off our game by playing in that fashion, it will give us a good chance."
In addition to Talib, the Buccaneers will also have the services of starting tight Kellen Winslow, who passed a pregame evaluation and will be among the 45 active players. RB Kareem Huggins, however, was not cleared to play and will be one of the team's eight inactives, along with CB Myron Lewis, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Niko Koutouvides, C/G Ted Larsen, DE Michael Bennett, WR Preston Parker and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter. Huggins and Koutouvides were out due to injury.
The Panthers' eight inactive players are WR Armanti Edwards, WR Brandon LaFell, CB C.J. Wilson, LB Jordan Senn, T Jeff Otah, DT Louis Leonard, DE Tyler Brayton and designated third quarterback Tony Pike. LaFell, Otah, Leonard and Brayton were out due to injuries.
Otah hasn't played since midway through the 2009 season; thus, even though he is listed as a starter on the Panthers' depth chart, the team will once again use Geoff Schwartz at right tackle. Leonard and Brayton are also Carolina starters; they will be replaced by Derek Landri at right defensive tackle and Everette Brown at right defensive end.
The Buccaneers and Panthers will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.