By one black-and-white measure, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are better positioned for victory this weekend than they have been going into any game in almost two years.
On Sunday, Tampa Bay will play host to Carolina at Raymond James Stadium, pitting their 5-3 record against the Panthers' 1-7 mark. It's the first time since the 2008 finale that the Bucs will go into a game up four games or more in the standing over their opponents.
If you think the Panthers' record will give the home team a false sense of security, however, think again. The Bucs have been their own case study in 2010, underdogs on paper most weekends but willing to fight to the end, and more often than not successfully. They expect Carolina to come into Sunday's game with the same amount of fight.
And, really, what else should they expect when it comes to the Panthers? The Bucs won in Carolina in Week Two but they haven't swept a season series with Carolina since 2002. Just two years ago the Bucs seemed to assert authority in Week Six with a dominant 27-3 throttling of their division rivals, only to have the Panthers rip off 299 rushing yards and a 38-23 win in Week 14.
"You don't look at records at this point because records mean nothing," said Buccaneers WR Micheal Spurlock. "You see games around the league every week where the 'lesser' opponent won. We're going to take Carolina for what they are – they're a very good team, they're very physical and they're smart at what they do."
A rash of injuries has recently taken out the Panthers' starting quarterback, Matt Moore, and starting middle linebacker, Dan Connor. In addition Carolina's running game, traditionally its greatest strength, is more of a question mark with injuries sidelining DeAngelo Williams (foot), Jonathan Stewart (concussion) and Tyrell Sutton (ankle). But, again, the Buccaneers need only look at their own season to understand that such troubles can be overcome. Who would have imagined, at the beginning of the season, that Tampa Bay would get a winning edge from the play of such reserves as Ted Larsen, James Lee, LeGarrette Blount, Cody Grimm and Erik Lorig?
"You've got to go out there and prepare for [Head Coach] John Fox's mentality and their coordinators' mentality and what they want to do," said Bucs Head Coach Raheem Morris. "That's never going to change. They may have a back down, they may have a quarterback controversy – none of that ever matters with Carolina.
"Make no mistake – this is the Carolina Panthers. This is a division game and it's going to be a fight right down to the end because they're young, they're hungry and they play off the mentality of their coach."
Morris pulled out one Bucs-Panthers game from the middle of the decade as a perfect example. Late in 2004 the Bucs were facing a 6-8 Panthers squad that had absorbed injuries to tailbacks DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis and was the league's 28th-best rushing team. Tampa Bay was ranked ninth against the run and second overall on defense. And so of course career reserve Nick Goings ran for 133 yards and Carolina prevailed.
So, no, this won't be a trap game for the Buccaneers, who know better than to believe a team is defined by the W-L record it brings into a game (think Bucs at Saints, last December).
"We're taking Carolina just like any other week," said Spurlock. "It's a divisional opponent. Years before they've come in and embarrassed us here and in their place. We don't want that to happen again. We'll keep those memories in our mind. It's going to be a fight and hopefully in the end we'll come out on top."
Will Tampa Bay indeed come out on top and in the process keep pace with Atlanta and New Orleans in the rugged NFC South? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: Starting linemen Jeff Faine and Jeremy Trueblood didn't quite make it back into the lineup last weekend, but this could be the game in which they return. The Bucs would also like to see WR Sammie Stroughter come back from a foot injury that kept him out of the Atlanta contest.
Carolina: The Panthers lost QB Matt Moore and LB Dan Connor to season-ending injuries last Sunday; rookie Jimmy Clausen will replace Moore against the Buccaneers. Again, Carolina will also be without running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Tyrell Sutton.
- Micheal Spurlock, WR, Buccaneers. There were five plays in the Bucs-Falcons game last Sunday that produced 40 or more yards, and three of them belonged to Spurlock, who might be the Bucs' unsung hero in 2010. In addition to a stunning 43-yard catch on third down from the Bucs' one-yard line, Spurlock also ignited Tampa Bay's comeback with kickoff returns of 66 and 89 yards, the second for a touchdown. Spurlock is averaging 14.6 yards per catch and 27.5 yards per kickoff return.
- E.J. Biggers, CB, Buccaneers. Biggers doesn't start on Tampa Bay's defense, and yet he leads the team through eight games with seven passes defensed. Biggers still has a big role as the team's nickel back, which usually puts him on the outside as RCB Ronde Barber moves into the slot. Biggers has five pass breakups in his last five games and has frequently made the big play when tested deep by opposing quarterbacks.
- James Anderson, LB, Panthers. Last season, Anderson was probably the least publicized of the four linebackers that started for the team (Anderson, Jon Beason, Na'il Diggs and Thomas Davis), but he came on strong on the weak side after an injury to Davis. This year, Anderson is starting on the strong side and is simply the Panthers' most productive defender. Last five games: 48 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble.
- Mike Goodson & Tyrell Sutton, RBs, Panthers. It might be hard to imagine the Panthers needing much running back depth with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart leading the way. But with Williams ailing of late and Stewart not putting up big numbers, Goodson and Sutton have helped pick up the slack. Last week, those two combined to produce 70 of Carolina's 127 rushing yards and six of its 17 receptions. Sutton won't play this week, which means Goodson has a chance to get on a roll.
- Kellen Winslow, TE, Buccaneers. Winslow, who has extended his career-long streak of catching at least one pass in every game to 67 outings, has been there for young QB Josh Freeman every week, but the last two games the offense hasn't turned in his direction as often. Winslow had 18 catches in Games 4-6 combined but has only four grabs over the last two weeks. He's also looking for his first touchdown of the season, but it's likely he'll see all of his numbers trend upward in the coming weeks.
- Kyle Moore, DE, Buccaneers. The Buccaneers' run defense seems to be getting a little stingier as the season progresses, and Moore has been a part of that as the team's stalwart left defensive end. Still, the second-year player has pass-rush potential, too, and the Bucs would like to see that translate into some quarterback sacks. Through eight games, Moore is still looking for his first QB takedown.
- Steve Smith, WR, Panthers. A "due" Steve Smith? That's a scary thought, but it might be what the Bucs will encounter on Sunday. Smith started the season in his usually productive fashion, with eight catches for 141 yards and two scores through the first two weeks. Since then, however, he has not scored and has only one game in which he has recorded more than four catches or 50 yards. Last week, he had one nine-yard grab.
- Chris Gamble, CB, Panthers. Like Smith, Gamble has had some big days against the Buccaneers, and he's been consistently productive for the Falcons since 2004. In fact, Gamble has averaged four interceptions per season over his six years in the league. So far in 2010, however, the ballhawking cornerback is still looking for his first interception of the season. Gamble does have eight passes defensed, so he's still getting in position to make plays.
- The rise of LeGarrette Blount and the continued good decision-making shown by QB Josh Freeman has restored a bit of the big-play element to the Bucs' rushing attack. Over the first five games of the season, the Bucs' ground game produced just 11 runs of 10 or more yards, none for touchdowns. Over the past three weeks, the Bucs have posted 14 runs of 10 or more yards, including one for a score by Blount in Arizona.
- When Tampa Bay's final drive stalled at the Falcons' two-yard line last Sunday, it marked the first time all season that the Buccaneers had not scored in the fourth quarter. Through the first seven games of the season, the Bucs had scored 46 of their 136 points in the final period, or 33.8% of their total. The fourth quarter was the Bucs' highest-scoring period before the Atlanta game.
- Though it's been a tough season for the 1-7 Panthers, the team's defense has actually improved statistically from last season. Carolina ranked 18th defensively at the end of 2009 but currently stands at 11th in 2010. The Panthers ran into a red-hot Saints team last week and gave up 408 yards, but before that had held their previous three opponents to 247, 282 and 246 yards, respectively.
- If there's one thing the Panthers have been able to do extremely well in recent years it is run the football. Carolina ranked third in the NFL in rushing in both 2008 and 2009. Injuries and QB struggles, however, have hurt the Panthers' rushing attack in 2010. Carolina currently ranks 26th in that category and has dropped from 152.3 yards per game last year to 90.8 this season.
There are no former Panthers on the Bucs' roster, or vice versa, and no coaches with overlaps between the two teams, and perhaps that's not surprising with the two youngest rosters in the NFL. The Buccaneers do have several players, however, who grew up and played their college ball in Panther territory, including kicker Connor Barth. Barth went to high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, about 200 miles from Charlotte, and later chose the University of North Carolina to continue his career. If Barth grew up watching the Panthers' kicker in action, then he might see a familiar face on Sunday, too. John Kasay has been kicking for the Panthers since 1995, their inaugural season.
ONE TO WATCH
With so many rookies making big impacts for the Buccaneers in 2010, some of the team's effective young role players have been overshadowed. That has been the case for rookie LB Dekoda Watson, a seventh-round pick out of Florida State who has been as productive on special teams as the Bucs expected. Watson is fourth on the team with nine kick-coverage stops, just two behind leaders Adam Hayward and Corey Lynch. Last weekend in Atlanta, he got his first shot on defense, too, with Quincy Black hobbling, and immediately turned in a tackle for a loss and a quarterback pressure.