The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the Carolina Panthers on New Year's Day at Raymond James Stadium for command of the NFC South. The end of the regular season looms and the division hangs in the balance as the Panthers – who have won three of their last four outings – will strive for first place with a victory on the road. If the Bucs defend their home turf with a win, they will clinch a playoff berth and their second consecutive division title for the first time in franchise history. In this winner-take-all tilt, the urgency is high for both clubs. The Panthers capped off their recent surge with a drubbing of the Lions last weekend en route to a franchise-record 320 yards on the ground. After a lackluster 2-7 start, Carolina has hit its stride with Sam Darnold at the helm. Meanwhile, the Bucs have not built cushion in the NFC South by losing three of their last five outings. However, the team is coming off a comeback thriller over the Cardinals in Arizona on Christmas night. Tom Brady went 6-6 on a late, methodical drive in overtime that set up Ryan Succop's game-winning kick. On Sunday, the Bucs will strive to match the Panthers' physicality to punch their ticket to the playoffs. After a week of preparation, here is what the Week 17 matchup comes down to:
4 Stats that Matter
- D'Onta Foreman has 774 rush yards since Week Seven (3rd in NFL). The workhorse has spearheaded the team's recent robust rushing attack, including 165 rushing yards against Detroit.
- Carolina is 3-1 and has a 25-plus point differential since Week 12 (7th in NFL). Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are 2-3 in that span with a -41 point differential (5th-worst).
- The Panthers are 6-2 this season when their rushing attack exceeds 100 yards, including a team-record 320 yards against the Lions with D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard leading the way.
- In 2022, the Bucs' run defense ranks 17th in yards per game allowed (120.3) and 20th in yards per carry allowed (4.50).
3 Lineup Notes
On Friday, Head Coach Todd Bowles did not definitively rule out any players for Sunday's Week 17 matchup. He did include both cornerback Carlton Davis III (shoulder) and outside linebacker Carl Nassib (pectoral) as two players who would be game day decisions. "For the most part, everybody's trending in the right direction," Bowles stated. When asked about nose tackle Vita Vea and left tackle Donovan Smith specifically, Bowles described both as needing to be assessed on Sunday to see if they can play.
Six players were listed as questionable on Friday's injury report including Jamel Dean (toe), Mike Edwards (hamstring), Julio Jones (knee), Smith (foot), Vea (calf) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (ankle). Dean upgraded to full participation on Friday, while the other five practiced in a limited fashion at the AdventHealth Training Center.
For the Panthers, cornerback Jaycee Horn was ruled out with a wrist injury. Horn had surgery on his wrist on Tuesday and with the season on the line, the Panthers will now be without their best corner. Three players were listed as questionable for the Week 17 matchup: defensive end Marquis Haynes Sr. (ankle), guard Cade Mays (knee) and tight end Tommy Tremble (hip). Tremble was a full participant for Carolina on Friday after being limited on Wednesday and Thursday. Mays was added to the report on Friday as a limited participant.
2 Challenges Presented by the Panthers
There is no mystery surrounding what the Panthers' focus will be on offense come Sunday: run the football. Their system is predicated on the ground attack, benefiting the complementary rushing styles of D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. Both eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark last week against Detroit and are a nightmare for defenses to contend with. They can stretch the opposition both horizontally and vertically. Foreman, the one-cut downhill runner, is proficient at gaining yards after contact and powering his way through arm tackles. Hubbard, the Panthers' change-of-pace runner, thrives in outside zone with a slash run style. The slippery back is able to sneak away from defenders with jump cuts and is explosive on screens. Carolina's success is invariably linked to its efficiency on the ground (6-2 when its rushing total exceeds 100 yards). In addition to the threat of both backs, mobile quarterback Sam Darnold acts as an extension of the run game with his ability to extend plays outside of the pocket using his legs. In zone reads, if defenders are not disciplined with their eyes, the threat of a Darnold escape could create opportunities for the backs. The Bucs' gap integrity will be tested on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. This matchup will likely hinge in the trenches and preventing rushers from seeping past the second level.
Defensively, the Panthers have one of the most athletic fronts in the NFL featuring defensive end Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, safety Jeremy Chinn, linebacker Shaq Thompson and linebacker Frankie Luvu. The Panthers' defense has improved in recent weeks, allowing an average of 18.1 points per game over the previous six contests. Burns is the franchise cornerstone, accumulating a career high in sacks this year with 12.5. He possesses rare closing speed and as a result, tackles often commit to Burns' speed rush, and then he out-leverages with a counter spin move. Carolina moves Burns around the formation to create advantageous one-on-ones. Thompson has a team-high 116 tackles to pair with eight tackles for loss and Luvu has made a sizeable impact from sideline-to-sideline whether forcing fumbles or picking off passes. Brown is the centerpiece of the Panthers' defensive line, creating havoc in the passing and running game. He is a monster at the point of attack and can push the pocket with an effective bull rush. On the back end, Chinn is an enforcer. Since returning from injury, he has set the tone. Chinn has a rare combination of size, speed and instincts. He can line up deep in the post or come downhill in a hybrid role. Chinn plays at the line of scrimmage like a linebacker and has a knack for finding the football. The talented bunch pose a challenge to a Bucs' offense that has yet to play a consistent, 60-minute showing. Sunday could turn the tide.
1 Key Thought from Pass Game Coordinator/Inside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote
On Carolina's run game:
"Got to bring your big-boy pants, you've got to be gap sound, you've got to be physical and bring that demeanor to the game. They've got big backs – 'No. 33' (Foreman) is a big guy, No. 30 (Hubbard) is slashing. But you've got to be gap sound, you've got to know what to do about the ball, you've got to know where your help is at and play fundamentally sound up front. You've got to be willing and ready to come meet it head on."