Pictures of some of the Panthers' top players.
If a trend nearly a decade in the making continues, either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Carolina Panthers will get an early Christmas present this Sunday, followed by an even greater gift on Christmas Eve.
Since 2009, the head-to-head series has been an all-or-nothing affair for the Buccaneers and Panthers. Each of the last eight seasons has ended in a two-game head-to-head sweep for one of those two division rivals. That went in favor of Tampa Bay in 2010, 2012 and 2016 and in Carolina's direction in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. That's largely because the Bucs and Panthers can't seem to coordinate their best years; the last time both teams finished the season with a winning record was 2008, which was also the last time they split the series.
This year, the Panthers' Week Eight visit to Raymond James Stadium marks the first division game the Buccaneers will play in 2017. The rematch is in Charlotte on December 24. If the Buccaneers get their season back on track – perhaps with a win over their division foes on Sunday – and remain in playoff contention in Week 16, that could be the most critical Bucs-Panthers matchup since December of 2005. More on that below.
The Buccaneers' sweep last year by nearly identical 17-14 and 17-6 scores loosened Carolina's recent stranglehold on the series. The Panthers had won the previous six, dating back to 2013. The Panthers still hold the overall series edge, 20-13, and all but three of those games have come since the two teams were paired in the NFC South during the NFL's 2002 realignment. The Bucs were on the Panthers' schedule in the latter team's inaugural 1995 season, a game that was actually played at Clemson. The visitors came away with a 20-13 win despite a strong showing by the expansion team, which put up 393 yards of offense. Tampa Bay's defense swung the decision in the visitors' favor with four takeaways and backup QB Casey Weldon won the game with a one-yard touchdown plunge.
Last year's two Buccaneers wins were very tight, as well. The Bucs' three-point victory in Charlotte in Week Five came down to a 38-yard field goal attempt by rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo. Aguayo struggled through much of the 2016 season and has since been replaced in Tampa, but he drilled this one down the middle to complete an impressive Buccaneer rally in front of a national audience. The key moment was Jameis Winston hitting Mike Evans on a 26-yard stop-and-go touchdown pass late in the third quarter. Winston then found Adam Humphries for a successful two-point conversion to knot the score at 14-14. Most of the fourth quarter was scoreless thanks to two takeaways by the Buccaneers' defense, the most critical one a diving end zone interception by cornerback Brent Grimes. RB Jacquizz Rodgers, making his first start as a Buccaneer, ran for 101 yards, including 30 on the 66-yard game-winning drive.
The Buccaneers came into the season-ending rematch technically still alive in the NFC playoff hunt at 8-7. It would have taken a byzantine combination of Week 17 results for the Bucs to get in, but at least they took care of their part of it by finishing the season sweep over the Panthers. This time it was Carolina that nearly made a stunning late-game comeback, but a wholly-understandable decision to go for two with 17 seconds left made the outcome hinge on a single play. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton tried to hit tight end Greg Olsen in the middle of the end zone but the pass was incomplete and the Bucs' held on by one point. Newton had used the final three minutes of the game to conduct a 74-yard drive, converting two fourth downs before hitting Kelvin Benjamin for the touchdown. The Bucs had earlier taken a 10-7 lead on a pick-six by cornerback Brent Grimes, then scored to go up by seven on Winston's 10-yard touchdown pass to Evans.
The Panthers won twice in 2015, in a pair of games that looked somewhat similar on the scoreboard at the end but were really vastly different. In the first meeting, at Raymond James Stadium in Week Four, the Buccaneers rang up 411 yards of offense and 25 first downs to 244 and 17 for the visiting Panthers, but Carolina's defense intercepted Winston four times, with Pro Bowl CB Josh Norman returning one of them 46 yards for a touchdown. Carolina also scored on a fluky play in which Bucs S Chris Conte forced a fumble by RB Jonathan Stewart but the loose ball flew directly into the hands of TE Ed Dickson, who ran it 57 yards for a touchdown. That turned a close game into a two-touchdown lead for Carolina, which rolled from there to a 37-23 decision.
The rematch closed out the season, with the 14-1 Panthers playing host to the 6-9 Buccaneers in Charlotte. This time Carolina ran out to a 24-3 lead by halftime and eventually won 38-10. The total yards were nearly identical (386 for the Bucs to 366 for Carolina) but QB Cam Newton was coldly efficient throughout the day, completing 21 of 26 passes for two TDs and no picks and also running in a pair of touchdowns.
There were lopsided wins for both teams during those half-dozen years, but the 2014 season series featured two games decided by a total of eight points. The Panthers came to Tampa for the teams' shared season opener that year and Carolina won, 20-14, behind a 92-yard, one-touchdown debut from Benjamin, then a rookie. Backup QB Derek Anderson started in place of the injured Newton and threw eight passes to Olsen for 83 yards and another score.
The Bucs and Panthers wouldn't get their 2014 rematch until Week 14, and the second game would be even closer. Tampa Bay took a 10-9 lead into halftime at Bank of America Stadium, helped by a Josh McCown eight-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans and a defense that forced Carolina to settle for four straight field goal tries (and three successes) on drives that reached the Bucs' 33-yard line or farther. The tide turned just after halftime, however, when Carolina ends Mario Addison and Charles Johnson sacked McCown and forced a fumble that the Panthers recovered at Tampa Bay's four-yard line. Anderson threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery two plays later and the home team never trailed again in a 19-17 decision.
The last time the Bucs and Panthers each finished the season with a winning record was in 2008, and that was also the last time the season series ended in a split. Tampa Bay ran away with the first meeting at home in Week Six, with Warrick Dunn gaining 115 yards on 22 carries, the last of his 30 career 100-yard rushing games. However, the Panthers returned the favor in Week 14 on Monday Night Football, pulling away to a 38-23 win behind an incredible 299 rushing yards. DeAngelo Williams led the way with 186 yards and two scores and Jonathan Stewart (still the Panthers' starter in 2015) added 115 and two more scores. The Bucs also lost their next three games after that one to finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs while Carolina won four of its last five and took the NFC South title.
The reverse happened in 2005, when the Panthers won handily in Tampa earlier in the season but the Buccaneers returned to Charlotte on Dec. 11 for what would essentially be a battle for first place. That was the middle leg of an unusual three-game road swing right in the heat of the playoff race for the Buccaneers, and they were decided underdogs to the 9-3 Panthers. Thanks largely to Ronde Barber and Cadillac Williams, however, the visitors controlled the action all day and eventually walked away with a 20-10 victory. Williams ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns while Barber made an acrobatic and crucial interception near the Bucs' goal line in the fourth quarter. The victory put Tampa Bay into the top spot in the division and they eventually held on for the title at 11-5, winning a tiebreaker against the 11-5 Panthers.
The Panthers and Buccaneers also started their season together in 2012, with the Bucs winning, 16-10, on September 9. That outcome contributed to a 1-6 start for the Panthers while the Bucs used it to launch a 6-4 run, but both teams sat at 7-9 when it was all said and done. Doug Martin made his NFL debut with a 95-yard outing, Ronde Barber began his last NFL season with another critical late-game interception, and Connor Barth's three field goals made the difference in the final outcome. The Bucs needed a historically good run defense to pull out the win, holding Carolina to just 10 rushing yards on the game to tie a team record. The Bucs were particularly hard on Newton, who had put up enormous numbers against Tampa Bay's defense during his eye-opening rookie campaign in 2011. Newton threw for 303 yards but was intercepted twice, sacked three times and gained only four rushing yards on five carries. In the rematch in Charlotte, Newton led the Panthers to a 21-10 fourth-quarter lead but the Buccaneers mustered one of their most dramatic comebacks in years to win, 27-21, in overtime. WR Vincent Jackson sent the game into an extra period with his last-minute touchdown catch and the subsequent two-point conversion.
As for those 2011 numbers for Newton, however, they were quite a bit different. In two wins over the Buccaneers, the dual-threat rookie accounted for four passing touchdowns and four rushing touchdowns and was not intercepted once.
The Panthers won both meetings handily in 2013 on their way to the division championship, outscoring the Bucs 58-19 overall. The first game was a nationally-televised Thursday-night affair in Tampa, in which Newton threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns and also ran 11 times for 50 yards and another score. Rookie QB Mike Glennon completed 30 of 51 passes for 275 yards and a touchdown in that game, but the Bucs' offense couldn't get much going when it went to Charlotte for the rematch in early December. This time, Carolina's top-ranked defense sacked Glennon five times and picked him off once en route to an easy 27-6 decision.
Some of the most dramatic outcomes in the head-to-head Bucs-Panthers series have come from tight, low-scoring affairs. In 2002, during the Buccaneers' run to Super Bowl XXXVII, a Tampa Bay team playing without starting QB Brad Johnson found itself trailing, 9-3, in the fourth quarter. K Martin Gramatica finished off a four-for-four performance with three long field goals in the final period, the last one a 47-yard game-winner that backed up a defense that only allowed 130 total yards.
The very next season saw a Bucs-Panthers game end in a 12-9 final, but in a far less happy way for the Buccaneers. Coming off a dominant 17-0 win in Philadelphia in the 2003 season opener, the defending NFL champs stumbled in their home opener against Carolina, in part due to a single play that led to injuries to both Mike Alstott and Joe Jurevicius. Trailing 9-3, the Bucs' offense woke up just in time, with Johnson driving the team 82 yards in the last two minutes to set up a six-yard touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell as time expired. An extra point would have won it, but Carolina DT Kris Jenkins blocked the attempt, sending the game to overtime and giving the Panthers a chance to eventually win it on John Kasay's field goal.
Bucs' Game-by-Game Record vs. Panthers:
- Overall Season Series: Carolina leads, 20-13
- Bucs' Home Record: 6-10
- Bucs' Road Record: 7-10
- Current Streak: Win 2 (2016)
- Buccaneers' Longest Winning Streak: 3 (1998-2002)
- Panthers' Longest Winning Streak: 6 (2013-15)
- Regular Season Point Total: Buccaneers 572, Panthers 725
- Most Points in a Game, Tampa Bay: Buccaneers 31-16 (2010)
- Most Points in a Game, Carolina: Panthers 48-16 (2011)
- Most Points, both teams: 64, Panthers 48-16 (2011)
- Fewest Points in a Game, Tampa Bay: Panthers 24-0 (1996)
- Fewest Points in a Game, Carolina: Buccaneers 27-3 (2008)
- Fewest Points in a Game, both teams: 21, twice: Buccaneers 12-9 (2002), Panthers 12-9 (2003)