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BUCS’ OPPONENT: Carolina Panthers

WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

SPREAD: Buccaneers by 3

WHERE THE PANTHERS STAND: The Panthers are 6-8 and tied with the New Orleans Saints for second place in the NFC South Division.

PANTHERS HEAD COACH: John Fox

PANTHERS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dan Henning

PANTHERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Trgovac

PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Scott O’Brien

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 22nd (312.1 ypg)
RUSHING: 26th (98.6 ypg)
PASSING: 16th (213.4 ypg)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 4th (284.4 ypg)
RUSHING: 20th (123.2 ypg)
PASSING: 1st (161.2 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS OFFENSE:
OVERALL: 16th (325.5 ypg)
RUSHING: 24th (99.6 ypg)
PASSING: 12th (225.9 ypg)

CAROLINA PANTHERS DEFENSE:
OVERALL: 17th (334.2 ypg)
RUSHING: 19th (121.0 ypg)
PASSING: 17th (213.2 ypg)

DID YOU KNOW…
…Tampa Bay leads the league in sacks with 44?

PANTHERS OFFENSE:
Carolina’s offense has fared well as of late, and quarterback Jake Delhomme deserves a lot of credit for this unit’s recent success. Delhomme, who has been without weapons like running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, and wide receiver Steve Smith, is completing nearly 59 percent of his passes and has thrown for 3,365 yards and tossed 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Carolina’s offensive line has done a much better job of protecting Delhomme, who has been sacked 26 times in 14 games. Tampa Bay did a nice job of getting after Delhomme in the last meeting. The Bucs recorded four sacks, but that wasn’t enough, evidenced by Delhomme’s ability to complete 67 percent of his passes and the Panthers’ ability to convert 50 percent of their third down attempts. Carolina’s offense, which ranks 16th overall, is converting 40.7 percent of their third down tries this season.

Running back Nick Goings carried the ball 23 times for 106 yards (4.6 avg.) against the Bucs, but he’s since cooled off. Goings has rushed for 648 yards and six touchdowns and is averaging 3.8 yards per carry. He’s also been an effective receiver out of the backfield, evidenced by his 35 receptions for 292 yards and one touchdown.

Delhomme’s go-to guy has been wide receiver Mushin Muhammad, who has caught 79 passes for 1,195 yards (15.1 avg.) and 12 touchdowns. The last time these two teams met, Muhammad caught just two passes. However, rookie WR Keary Colbert found himself in favorable matchups against Bucs nickel cornerback Torrie Cox, who allowed Colbert to catch two touchdown passes. Colbert, who is the offense’s deep threat, has caught 44 passes for 711 yards (16.2 avg.) and four touchdowns. Bucs CB Mario Edwards will be covering Colbert this time around.

PANTHERS DEFENSE:
Carolina’s defense has also suffered a plethora of injuries. It has been without 335-pound defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. Without Jenkins, the Panthers defense ranks 17th overall and is allowing 334.2 yards and 21.3 points per game.

Panthers left defensive end Julius Peppers has stepped up his play with Jenkins out of the lineup. He’s recorded a team-leading 10 sacks, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and scored two touchdowns. One of those scores came against the Bucs when he picked off quarterback Brian Griese and returned the ball 46 yards for a touchdown. Griese will have to know where Peppers is at all times since he’s the best defensive player the Panthers have on the field.

Because Peppers is the only player producing a potent pass rush on a consistent basis, Panthers head coach John Fox has been sending more blitzes. Linebackers Will Witherspoon and Dan Morgan have notched two sacks each. Witherspoon is also excellent in pass coverage, where he’s recorded a team-leading 14 passes defensed and four interceptions. Look for Witherspoon to play more of a role in covering Bucs running back Michael Pittman, who hauled in eight passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns in their last meeting.

The Panthers have the 16th ranked pass defense, but they’re receiving great play from cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Ricky Manning Jr. Gamble, a rookie, leads the team in interceptions with six and has 13 passes defensed. Manning Jr. has recorded four picks and eight passes defensed. These two players will have their hands full with Bucs wide receivers Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway, both of whom have also been playing well.

Tampa Bay was able to produce 398 yards of total offense and converted 63 percent of its third down attempts against Carolina the last time these two teams met, but three turnovers and three missed field goals hindered the Bucs’ ability to win.

PANTHERS SPECIAL TEAMS:
Carolina’s return game has suffered without return specialist Steve Smith, who is on injured reserve. Jamall Broussard is averaging 23.1 yards per kickoff return. His longest was a 49-yarder. He’s averaging just 4.3 yards per punt return.

Punter Todd Sauerbrun is averaging 44.6 yards per attempt and has pinned 31 percent of his tries inside the 20-yard line. Kicker John Kasay didn’t play when the Bucs and Panthers met last. He’ll likely play in this game, which is good news for the Panthers since Kasay has drilled 17 of his 19 field goal attempts this season.

FLYNN’S FINAL:
Carolina started the season off with a 1-7 record. One of the main reasons why the Panthers have turned their season around and control their playoff destiny is because they’ve been taking care of the football and taking it away from their opponents. Carolina currently has a plus-12 turnover ratio, and it created three turnovers when the Bucs and Panthers clashed a few weeks ago. The Bucs can simply not afford to lose the turnover battle and expect to win this contest against the Panthers, who will be fighting for their playoff lives.

If the Bucs aren’t prepared to play a physical football game, they’ll lose, period. These two teams don’t like each other, and they have beat the heck out of each other in each contest since 2002. The team that wins the physical battle will likely win this contest, and with the Panthers having more to play for and a three-game winning streak against the Bucs, the Pewter Pirates probably won’t be playing spoiler the day after Christmas.

FLYNN’S PICK: Panthers 24 Buccaneers 20
This story is intended to be read only by PewterInsider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on PewterReport.com. Buccaneers merchandise in the world.

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