The 8-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 6-9 Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in the season finale for both teams. Tampa Bay enters the game with very slim playoff hopes remaining but a real chance to sweep the Panthers for the first time since 2012.
Since the Bucs' last playoff shot hinges on an unlikely Washington-New York tie later on Sunday afternoon, the Panthers' visit is almost sure to be Tampa Bay's last outing of the season. A win for the Buccaneers would keep that final hope alive, at least briefly, but likely would have more effect on how the team feels heading into the offseason.
"When you're competing, every game's important," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "This is our final regular-season game and that's all we have control of right now. We want to go out there and finish the regular season on a high note."
Here are some additional notes regarding Saturday's Bucs-Saints rematch:
A Different Challenge in Week 17
After facing the New Orleans Saints twice in a 13-day span (and splitting those two contests), the Buccaneers face a different sort of challenge against a team they haven't seen since October 10. Tampa Bay won that game in Charlotte on Monday Night Football, 17-14, in a game that had notable players out of action on both sidelines.
The Buccaneers' injuries in Week Five were mostly concentrated on the defensive line and at running back, while the Panthers were missing starting quarterback Cam Newton, the reigning league MVP. In preparing for the rematch, Buccaneer coaches could study the strategies that worked in October but they also knew that Carolina has had some significant changes over the last three months.
VIEW: BUCS-PANTHERS INACTIVES
"You weight both," said Koetter of information from October and more recently. "On both sides of the ball, we know these coordinators well and they know us well. I think the main difference is both teams have had a fair amount of changes due to injury. Cam Newton didn't play in the first game; they have guys that are beat up, we have guys that are beat up. We have some new guys, they have some new guys. I think it's more a case of different personnel then it will be different schemes."
Additional Lineup Notes
The Buccaneers will welcome starting right tackle Demar Dotson back to the lineup on Sunday. Dotson missed the previous three games due to a concussion. His return will allow the team to shift Kevin Pamphile back to his usual starting spot at left guard.
Tampa Bay's offensive front will primarily be blocking for Jacquizz Rodgers, who ran for 101 yards against Carolina in his first start as a Buccaneer in October. Rodgers takes over as the lead back again after Doug Martin received an NFL suspension and Charles Sims landed on injured reserve.
The Panthers took it easy on their offensive trio of Newton, running back Jonathan Stewart and tight end Greg Olsen this week in practice but all three returned to full participation on Friday and will be in the lineup for Sunday's finale. Newton has been playing through a right shoulder injury but will get his first shot at the Buccaneers this season. The man who replaced him in Week Five, Derek Anderson, is out for the finale due to an illness, however, which makes Joe Webb the backup to Newton.
Carolina's defense will be without starting left end Charles Johnson, who has 4.0 sacks this season for the league's top sack-producing defense. He will be replaced in the starting lineup by Kony Ealy, who also has 4.0 sacks.
Tampa Bay declared the following seven players inactive for Sunday's game: QB Ryan Griffin, WR Bernard Reedy, T Leonard Wester, DT John Hughes, G Caleb Benenoch, DE Channing Ward and DE William Gholston
Carolina's seven inactive players are QB Derek Anderson, RB Cameron Artis-Payne, LB Jeremy Cash, LB Luke Kuechly, T Don France, DT Paul Soliai and DE Charles Johnson.
Keep An Eye On
Wide receiver Mike Evans needs just one more touchdown catch to tie his own Buccaneer single-season record of 12, set in his 2014 rookie season. Evans got his 11th scoring grab last Saturday in New Orleans among seven receptions, which gives him a career-high 91 catches in 2015. He has an outside shot at becoming just the second Buccaneer to hit triple-digits in that category (Keyshawn Johnson, 106 in 2001), especially since he'll be playing against the NFL's 32-ranked pass defense.
However, Carolina is sure to pay extra attention to Jameis Winston's top target.
"Mike's been our most consistent player on offense all season," said Koetter. "We went through a couple weeks there where we weren't able to get him the ball as much as we'd like, but we got back on track last week, and of course the huge touchdown. As we move forward, we need to give Mike a little bit of help. We need to be a little stronger on the other side of Mike so teams can't double him, because Mike's a special talent."
Evans had six catches for 89 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with Carolina, and he's topped 70 yards in nine of his 15 outings so far. He has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season but is clearly having his best year yet.
"He does have really good range and he's improved a lot this year in his route-running," said Koetter. "He's also improved his consistency at catching, and then just his bending in and out of routes and his bending for low balls."
Carolina's offense ranks 12th in the league in rushing yards, with 112.4 per game, and if the Panthers stay in that slot it will actually be their lowest finish in the rankings since 2010. Still, the Buccaneers know they will be facing a potent ground game on Sunday, and one that has regained its usual form in recent weeks. After a midseason lull in that regard, Carolina has rushed for 119 yards or more in four of its last five outings. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay fields the NFL's 24th-ranked rush defense.
"Carolina hasn't been running Cam quite as much lately, but what they have been doing is pounding Jonathan Stewart straight downhill," said Koetter. "We got a little taste of that last week [against the Saints]. If we don't do a better job of holding our gaps and getting population to the ball it could be a long day, because he's a big powerful back."
The Buccaneers take on the Panthers on Sunday, with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be broadcast regionally by Fox and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.