The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open their 2012 regular season on September 9 against the Carolina Panthers. It's a milestone game – Ronde Barber's 200th consecutive start, the debuts of Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks, the kickoff of the Greg Schiano era – and the team has already put tickets for the contest on sale, several weeks before the rest of the schedule is available. (Season tickets are already on sale here.)
None of that is necessary, however, to make the '12 opener a must-see event, because the heated rivalry between the Buccaneers and the Panthers almost guarantees an entertaining affair. After the two teams were paired in the newly-created NFC South in 2002, an entertaining series developed that has been characterized by close outcomes and wild finishes.
Or, at least it was. The Bucs and Panthers have strayed from that head-to-head trend over the past two seasons, thanks to diverging team fortunes. In 2010, Tampa Bay was one of the NFL's surprise success stories while Carolina suffered through a very tough season plagued by quarterback woes. The Bucs won both games that year fairly easily. Last year, the Panthers solved their QB problems in a dramatic way – hello Cam Newton – while the Bucs ran into problems of their own and had a forgettable campaign. That time around, it was Carolina that won both games by comfortable margins.
Is this the year, then, that the Buccaneers and Panthers get back to the sort of gripping action that was often key in the NFC South title race in the division's earlier years? The last time both teams were in the hunt was 2008, and that was also the last season series that produced a split. Given the uniquely fluctuating standings that have characterized the first decade of the NFC South, the massive changes the Buccaneers have made since the end of last season and – let it be said again – the arrival of Cam Newton, there is reason to believe the rivalry will be as hard-fought and as important as ever.
Carolina is the first of eight opponents Tampa Bay will face at Raymond James Stadium during the regular season this fall. It is one of the most intriguing home slates Buccaneer fans have had to look forward to in some time. In addition to the Panthers, the Bucs will welcome to town the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams. Before the games begin, Buccaneers.com is going to take a look at each of those eight rivalries, discussing the all-time series results, the best moments for each team in the series, the most recent matchup, the outlook for 2012 and one key matchup to keep an eye on this fall.
First up, as with the actual schedule, is the Carolina Panthers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Carolina Panthers
All-Time Head-to-Head Results:
The Panthers weren't born until 1995 and the Bucs only found them on their schedule three times before the creation of the NFC South. Now, after a decade of intradivisional play, the two teams have a 23-game history overall, with the Panthers holding a 14-9 edge. Carolina has also scored more points overall in those 23 games, unsurprisingly, but it has been pretty close; the average score of a Bucs-Panthers game is 20.5-18.
Despite how tight the series has been, particularly from 2003-08, it has also been one of alternating winning streaks. Only three of the 10 seasons of NFC South play have resulted in a split between the two teams – 2005, 2007 and 2008. In each of those seasons, both teams were in the playoff race for most of the season and one or the other won the division crown (the Bucs in 2005 and 2007; Carolina in 2008).
Best Runs for Each Team:
The Bucs enjoyed early success against the Panthers, winning four of the first five meetings. That included two of the first three, though they came under wildly different circumstances. Tampa Bay won the first one in 1995, but that was Carolina's inaugural season, and the Panthers kept it close. The very next year, Carolina made a surprising run to the NFC title game and beat the Buccaneers along the way, 24-0. The Bucs won again in 1998, and then swept Carolina during the first year of NFC South existence, a season that ended in Tampa Bay's first Super Bowl Championship.
Carolina immediately followed that with five wins, its longest streak in the series to date. The first three of those were heartbreakers for the Buccaneers, especially a 12-9 overtime loss early in their 2003 title-defense season (more on that below). The last one was a fairly dominant 34-14 win by Carolina in November of 2005 that looked like it might put the Panthers in charge of the division race, but the Bucs were able to answer back impressively a month later.
Best Game for Tampa Bay:
Probably the most important win for the Buccaneers in the Bucs-Panthers series – and one of the biggest intradivision games for Tampa Bay ever, took place in December of 2005.
As mentioned above, Carolina won the first meeting between the two teams, played in Tampa, quite handily, and that was part of a 9-3 start for the Panthers that seemed to make them division favorites. The two teams met again on December 11, which was the middle game in a grueling three-games-in-14-days road stretch for the Buccaneers. A loss would have effectively bumped the Bucs, then 8-4, out of the NFC South race. Instead, Tampa Bay went to Carolina and came back with a 20-10 victory that eventually propelled them to the division title.
It was a memorable afternoon for Barber, who recorded his 20th career sack, making him the first 20-interception/20-sack cornerback in NFL history, and also sealed the victory with a critical fourth-quarter interception. Cadillac Williams had one of his most important games as a pro, rushing for 112 yards on 29 carries and scoring both of the Bucs' touchdowns, and Chris Simms was an efficient 20-for-27 without a pick.
Best Game for Carolina:
By the sheer numbers, one might go with the 38-23 Panther win in 2008 when Carolina ran for 299 yards and four touchdowns, or even the afternoon at RJS last year in which Newton ran for three touchdowns. However, the outing that produced the widest emotional margin between the two teams had to be the Panthers' 12-9 win in Tampa early in 2003.
The Buccaneers began their 2003 season in fine fashion, reprising the 2002 NFC Championship Game with a dominant win in Philadelphia. The Bucs had shut down the Vet on the way to Super Bowl XXXVII, and then been scheduled to start their title defense in Philly's new stadium, the Linc. After whitewashing the Eagles, 17-0, Tampa Bay players felt as if their 2003 season was going to be even better than 2002.
Game two of that season changed the narrative, unfortunately. The Bucs struggled to put together anything offensively and were losing 9-3 well into the fourth quarter. Brad Johnson finally woke the offense in the closing minutes and led a dramatic drive that finished with a touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell with seconds to play. The catch was reviewed by replay and upheld, meaning the Bucs simply needed to convert the extra point to walk away with a victory and a sense of relief. Amazingly, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins blocked the kick – the third blocked kick of the day for Carolina – and the game went to sudden death. Carolina won it in overtime on John Kasay's 47-yard field goal.
The Bucs also lost wide receiver Joe Jurevicius to injury for most of the season in that game, on a collision with teammate Mike Alstott that eventually shelved Alstott, too. The struggles grew from there and Tampa Bay finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs while Carolina won the division.
Most Recent Meeting:
As mentioned previously, the Panthers controlled the series last year, with the rookie phenom Newton having two of his most impressive outings against Tampa Bay. The second one was a 48-16 Carolina win in Charlotte that was just 17-10 late in the first half before it snowballed out of control. Newton scored another rushing touchdown but also threw for three more, including the game's biggest blow, a 91-yard touchdown to wide receiver Brandon LaFell. LaFell out-leaped cornerback E.J. Biggers for the ball down the middle of the field, and there were no defenders behind him after he made the catch.
The Buccaneers committed three of their four turnovers after halftime, leading to a four-touchdown run by the Panthers, who did not turn the ball over once. The continuing defensive struggles of 2011 masked a strong day by quarterback Josh Freeman, who completed 28 of 38 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown, his only pick coming on a tipped pass shortly before halftime.
The Bucs simply had no answer for Carolina's many-faceted rushing attack last year, and they couldn't contain Newton, who accounted for eight touchdowns in the two meetings. One way or another, however, Tampa Bay will field a radically different defense in 2012, if for no other reason than the turnover of the entire coaching staff. The Bucs have also added such potential difference-makers as Mark Barron and Lavonte David and expect another year of important development from Adrian Clayborn, Gerald McCoy and several other young players. Tampa Bay will be seeking to prove that it was 2011 that was the anomaly in their mostly proud defensive history of the past two decades.
Under Schiano and new Defensive Coordinator Bill Sheridan, the Buccaneers are likely to play a more aggressive style of defense in 2012, which could help them produce better results against Newton, in particular. The 23-year-old passer obviously had a rookie season for the ages, but he also threw 17 interceptions and sometimes showed his inexperience, as was virtually inevitable. Newton will be more comfortable in 2012 and perhaps even more dangerous, but a more attacking Buccaneer defense might be able to force him into more errors this time around.
Of course, Carolina hasn't sat still since the end of the 2011 season, either, and the Panthers needed improvements too after a 6-10 finish. They drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly with the ninth overall pick in April and hope to get Jon Beason and Thomas Davis back from season-ending injuries, which would make for a formidable trio in the middle of the Carolina defense. Carolina also added former Chargers jumbo back Mike Tolbert despite holding onto both Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
The Bucs have tried to diversify their backfield as well since the end of 2011, adding first-round pick Doug Martin and speedy seventh-rounder Michael Smith to a stable that already included LeGarrette Blount. Carolina's front seven may be stronger this year, but last fall it ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed; getting better results on the ground would help the Bucs avoid the sort of turnover-induced snowball effect that turned both of their meetings with Carolina into blowouts last year. Meanwhile, Freeman has had relatively strong efforts against the Panther secondary. In four meetings, he has completed 62.3% of his passes, thrown for over 250 yards a game and tossed five touchdown passes. Freeman has been picked off six times in those four games, but five of them came in one outing. If Freeman does have a more robust rushing game at his back this year, he might be able to take great advantage of a new-look receiving corps led by Vincent Jackson in this year's meetings with Carolina.
Key Matchup in 2012:
Mark Barron vs. Cam Newton. Not to sound like a broken record, but the Buccaneers had a hard time slowing Newton down in 2011, as did many teams. The dual threat that the former Auburn star poses on the ground and through the air translated into four touchdowns of each variety against Tampa Bay last fall. That combination is particularly difficult for opposing safeties who must diagnose between the run and the pass and be ready to help with both sorts of attack.
The Buccaneers believe Barron is the sort of playmaker who can do that, even against a talent like Newton. At Alabama, Barron was known as a ferocious hitter in run support but also a ballhawk in pass coverage. He's an instinctive defender who, hopefully, will be able to limit big plays of both kinds by Newton.
The Bucs have a rich history of competitive games against Carolina, and there's certainly no love lost between the two teams. The Panthers took control of the series last year behind Newton's exploits, but that should only serve to make the rivalry more intense in 2012, provided the Buccaneers make the gains they believe they will. Both Tampa Bay and Carolina are well aware of the NFC South's history of rapid upheaval, and the third and fourth-place teams from 2011 will be seeking to prove they can be in the hunt for the title again this fall. The division has been decided, in large part, by the team that had the upper hand in the Bucs-Panthers series in quite a few of the past 10 years. They hope to be playing meaningful games against each other once again this fall.