Key 1. Corral Cam
I’m not sure anyone other than Cam Newton himself could have expected the results the overall No. 1 pick in this past April’s draft has put up. While most knew he was athletically gifted, the fact is, Newton’s ability to read defenses and make plays with his arm has surprised most.
With five games left Newton is on pace to break Peyton Manning’s rookie record for most passing yards (3,093 compared to 3,739) and already has thrown 12 touchdowns to go along with 10 TD’s on the ground.
The Buccaneers have faced several top-quality QB’s this season (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan) but have yet to face one who is a dual-threat. The former Auburn Tiger has amassed 464 rushing yards and along with D’Angelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart average over five yards a carry. This could spell disaster for one of the NFL's worst rushing defenses.
Tampa Bay must understand Newton, Williams and Stewart will get their yards but must limit the huge, gashing easy runs. It may mean committing a linebacker or even a safety to spy Newton at times but most important is tackling well.
Key 2. Keep Blount Churning
With back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount has done his part to help the Buccaneers win. In order for the Bucs to snap their five-game losing streak they will need their bruising punisher to do it again Sunday.
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson and head coach Raheem Morris must stay committed to the run even if the Buccaneers fall behind early as by the fourth quarter no one will want to see No. 27 heading in their direction.
The Panthers defense is giving up an average of 137.5 yards on the ground this season and rank 24th overall in team defense, meaning the opportunity will be there for Blount to have a big day. And if backup Josh Johnson is called on to start he will need help from the running game to have success.
Key 3. Stifle Steve Smith
Just when you think Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith's best days are behind him, the Buccaneers killer seems re-energized with rookie Cam Newton at the helm. With six 100-yard games in his career against Tampa Bay there is no other divisional opponent who has been as big a thorn in the Bucs rear end than Smith over the last several seasons.
Smith has put together another Pro Bowl-type season catching 59 passes for 1,060 yards and five touchdowns in his 11th season out of Utah.
CB Aqib Talib will likely draw the unenviable task of trying to match up with Smith and if he can have the same results he has had the past two weeks, the Buccaneers will have a shot at victory and snapping their losing streak.
Key 4. Keep Your Hands To Yourself
Arguably the most crucial mistake made in last week’s game versus the Titans was Kellen Winslow’s holding penalty in the fourth quarter that pushed the Buccaneers out of field goal range and ultimately out of position for their fifth win.
Holding penalties, among others, have hampered the Buccaneers all season long and it has been a point of emphasis all year with Raheem Morris going as far as bringing in officials to work at One Buccaneer Place during the week while Tampa Bay practices.
Self-inflicted mistakes may be the biggest story line when this season ends and while most can accept getting out-played by a better team, killing yourself with penalties, dropping passes and other metal errors are the most frustrating way to lose for anyone -- fans and coaches included.
Key 5.Play Like There Is No Tomorrow
The playoffs at this point are as likely as a man from the North Pole landing on your house later this month, so the Buccaneers' players and coaches are left to play for pride while pondering the what-ifs.
With absolutely no margin for error this football team must have the dog backed in a corner mentality and come out fighting with all they have. This goes for the players but just as importantly the coaches as well.
If you have something in the tank, lab, or under a palm tree at One Buc Place, it is time to unleash it as if there is no tomorrow. Fake punts, flea-flickers or even double reverses – anything that catches your opponent by surprise. Now is the time to let it all fly.
The starting quarterback won’t be named until game time but either Josh Johnson or Josh Freeman will need a supporting cast to be effective against Carolina Sunday.
This game is the most important of the year and very winnable from a talent standpoint. Players and even coaches will be looking to make a statement to ownership and management and can't afford another poor performance this week.
If the Buccaneers come out and lay an egg Sunday, or even next week at Jacksonville, it could spell doom for certain players and even the coaching staff.
Cook’s Prediction: Buccaneers 27-17
Reynold's Prediction: Panthers 27-23
Horchy's Prediction: Buccaneers 33-30