Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-7) vs. Carolina Panthers (6-9)
Sunday, January 1, 1:00 P.M. ET
Raymond James Stadium (65,618)
Network Television: FOX
Play-By-Play: Thom Brennaman Analysts: Charles Davis, Chris Spielman Sideline: Peter Schrager
Bucs Radio: US 103.5, Flagship Station (103.5 FM, 620 AM & 95.3 FM)
Play-By-Play: Gene Deckerhoff Analyst: Dave Moore Sideline: T.J. Rives
Last Game: Tampa Bay Lost at New Orleans, 31-24; Carolina Lost at Atlanta, 33-16

A postseason berth would take nothing short of a miracle, but this Sunday presents the Bucs a great opportunity to finish 2016 with a winning record and give fans a nice sendoff into the offseason.

To start the New Year off right, Tampa Bay will need to sweep its division rival, the Carolina Panthers, saddled with their MVP quarterback under center this time around. While it’s no secret Cam Newton has struggled this year – 3,272 yards passing and 353 rushing – ask anyone within the walls of One Buc and they’ll tell you the 6-foot-5, 245-pound signal caller is still the same threat, capable of lighting up any opponent with his arm and legs any given Sunday. The Bucs, 2-6 against Newton all time, know that better than any team.

Carolina, 6-9 and out of playoff contention, enters Week 17 with the 19th ranked offense and 22nd ranked defense. The defending NFC Champions, who lost Josh Norman to free agency and will be without LB Luke Kuechly again Sunday, rank last in the league against the pass and are giving up an average of 26 points a game.

The Bucs offense, meanwhile, has not scored more than 24 since Week 13. And while the unit kept pace with the Cowboys and Saints the past couple weeks – with strong third quarters – turnovers have cost Tampa Bay in back-to-back losses.

Defensively, after struggling to contain Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas and slow down Drew Brees in New Orleans, as most teams tend to do, the Bucs unit will look to recapture its momentum during the five-game win streak and finish strong. Key matchups within the matchup this Sunday include the Keith Tandy and Bradley McDougald vs. tight end Greg Olsen, and Vernon Hargreaves and Brent Grimes vs. wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Ted Ginn Jr. Of course, getting pressure from the front four on Newton is paramount.

Now for some records in sight for the Bucs second-year quarterback:

With one more TD pass, No. 28, Jameis Winston will overtake Josh Freeman as the Bucs single-season leader. And with 267 passing yards this Sunday against a Panthers team surrendering an average of 273, Winston will have the most yards for any quarterback in his first two seasons.

A team-first guy, Winston’s more concerned with guiding the franchise to its first winning season since 2010 than any individual accomplishments. Fans likely feel the same way. December and January have not been kind to Tampa Bay the last five seasons (5-23), and after ending 2015 on a four-game losing streak, the last thing the Bucs need is a three-game skid to mar a promising year.

Find out how the Pewter Reporters envision the season finale playing out in Raymond James Stadium.

PewterReport.com Publisher & Bucs Beat Writer Scott Reynolds
The difference between being winners and a .500 team for the Buccaneers is a win over the Panthers on Sunday. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen in dramatic fashion with a second half comeback and another Roberto Aguayo game-winner, just like he nailed in Carolina on Monday Night Football earlier in the year.

Jameis Winston, Mike Evans and Jacquizz Rodgers all have big days while the Bucs run defense continues to miss injured DE Will Gholston, who is out with a dislocated elbow. Jonathan Stewart’s success on the ground allows Cam Newton to use play action to find tight end Greg Olson and receiver Kelvin Benjamin downfield. 

The Bucs are victorious at home to end the season with a 4-4 record at Raymond James Stadium with four straight wins. Winston and Evans set records, Rodgers is productive enough to earn a new contract in Tampa Bay and the Bucs lived happily ever after in 2017 (and make the playoffs this time next year).
Reynolds’ Score Prediction: Bucs win 26-23
Reynolds’ Pick To Click: WR Mike Evans

PewterReport.com Editor in Chief & Bucs Beat Writer Mark Cook
I have no idea what to expect from this Bucs team on Sunday. Are they pumped to finish the season on a high note, or do they already have one toe in the sand of the beaches in the Bahamas? Are the coaches looking to use this as a preseason game for evaluation for next year, or do they really believe what we have heard this week from the podium that 9-7 is a heck of a lot better than 8-8?

We will find out Sunday at 4 p.m. when the final guns sounds (by the way does anyone remember when they actually fired cap guns to end quarters, or an I just dreaming that?).

Personally I am taking the players and coaches’ word that this game means something. Now the question is how do the Panthers feel about this game? Are they planing on mailing it in? We could only have hoped that is what the Saints would have done last week after walking out on the field last Saturday evening already knowing they were eliminated from the playoffs. Unfortunately we know that wasn’t the case.

I expect the Bucs to bow up and take out their frustration on the Panthers. It won’t be easy though, as this isn’t a terrible Panthers team despite their struggles this season.  For whatever reason things are different record wise, but that doesn’t mean the talent level isn’t there. 

Look for the Bucs do just enough to scrape out a win. I don’t expect it to be pretty, but by the time next training camp rolls around, no one is going to care how pretty or ugly a win was. Fans will be amped up anticipating their football team improving on their 9-7 record. Winston goes off for 295 yards and three TDs, Rodgers runs for 111 yards and Mike Evans gets to 100 catches on the year. Happy New Years Bucs fans.
Cook’s Score Prediction: Bucs 24-23
Cook’s Pick To Click: Jameis Winston

PewterReport.com Bucs Beat Writer Eric Horchy
The Bucs tie a bow on their bittersweet 2016 season with a win on the first day of 2017.

Facing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton always seems daunting at first, but last year’s MVP simply has not been the same this season. Newton’s completing just 52.7 percent of his passes and he’s missed on over half of his throws five times in his past six games.

More thought seems to be going into postgame outfits and complaining about the refs, so let’s hope one more week of that behavior continues.

It’ll be interesting to see how Tampa Bay starts the game. This is a team dealing with the fact that it, in all likelihood, blew its shot at the postseason over the past few weeks. Add on running back Doug Martin’s PED suspension this week and the loss of a few more key contributors – tight end Cameron Brate, defensive end William Gholston, and running back Charles Sims – and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a flat performance in front of the home crowd.

Even though Tampa Bay’s struggled to run the football this year, they’ve mostly refrained from abandoning the run like they have in the past. On Sunday, the Bucs stick to that game plan and Jacquizz Rodgers makes it pay off. Rodgers first start as a Buccaneer came Week 5 in Carolina and he responded with the first 100-yard game of his six-year career.

Rodgers keeping the Panthers defense honest up front, will provide quarterback Jameis Winston opportunities to exploit a porous Carolina secondary. That’ll be crucial since Winston’s targets in the passing game continue to decrease.

The Bucs’ wacky scenario for making the playoffs probably won’t come to fruition, but the one thing they have an element of control over is taking care of business against the Panthers. Winston said last month that he’s “not a loser.” A victory Sunday earns him his first winning season as a professional quarterback and the Bucs first winning campaign since 2010.
Horchy’s Score Prediction: Bucs 26-20
Horchy’s Pick To Click: Jacquizz Rodgers

PewterReport.com Beat Reporter Trevor Sikkema
You’re going to read some columns and predictions that preview this game with the preface that, despite the losing record and not playing for the playoffs, this Panthers roster is still a talented group that is one year removed from a trip to the Super Bowl. But here’s what I really think: Carolina is bad.

Cam Newton’s 2016 season had been terrible, but his offensive line is even worse. In terms of recorded pressures (sacks and QB hits) the Panthers offensive line ranks right near the middle if the league, but stats lie. Newton’s 52.7 competition percentage is worst in the NFL among consistent starters, and a big reason for that isn’t even because his offensive line can’t protect him; it’s that they can’t run the ball. Last season the Panthers were second in the league in both rushing yards per game, but more importantly, rushing yards per attempt. This year, they’re 12th in rushing yards per game, but are tied for 19th in rushing yards per attempt. That’s a big difference. 

With no running game, Newton has crumbled down the stretch. I don’t know if he’s hearing footsteps or what, but even when the line can hold, he’s off. If you watched any of the Panthers game versus Atlanta last week, no matter how much you watched or when you tuned in, Newton was missing open throws.

William Gholston being out is a killer for Tampa (he’s their best run-stopping defensive end), so forcing Newton to throw with a bad run game will be on other shoulders. For my X-factor, I’m going outside the box and saying that how effective DT DaVonte Lamber will be will go a long way. He played 80 percent of the team’s snaps last week with Gholston gone, and if he plays well, the team can still afford to rotate Robert Ayers and Clinton McDonald in and out for Noah Spence, who isn’t a great run defender. 

On the flip side, the Panthers defense has been very hot and cold due to the excessive amount of “drive killers” they’ve been able to record — without them, they would just be cold. Carolina is first in the NFL in sacks with 44, and also have a third-best 16 interceptions (which, at times, come hand-in-hand). However, their dead last in the league in passing yards allowed, and also have allowed a 67.4 completion percentage average. Jameis Winston only threw for 219 yards and one touchdown in the teams’ previous meeting back in October. If Tampa’s offensive line can hold up, I think he eclipses those numbers by a good amount this second time around.

Ultimately, I think that happens. The Doug Martin distraction has been a bit of a wrench in the focus this week, I’m sure. But, from the mood around the team leaders and coaching staff, they’re ready to solidify this season with a winning record. Hold the Panthers run game on the edge and the Bucs will hold their heads high when they walk off the field.
Sikkema’s Score Prediction: Bucs 31-17
Sikkema’s Pick To Click: DaVonte Lambert

PewterReport.com Bucs Beat Writer Zach Shapiro
They’re not surging to the Super Bowl, nor is Cam Newton running away with MVP, but the NFC Champions are still a good team with plenty of offensive weapons.

If the Bucs don’t pressure Newton, it could make for a long afternoon. I’m looking for a big day from rookie Noah Spence, who along with Robert Ayers, will need to step up with Will Gholston sidelined again. As DC Mike Smith said, offenses have taken note of Spence and, as a result, he hasn’t gotten to the quarterback as much since his emergence midway through the year. Steady pressure and a sack Sunday would go a long way. Give more reason to believe that Tampa Bay has a promising pass rush heading into 2017, Noah.

Greg Olsen lit Tampa Bay up in Week 5 (with Derek Anderson at QB) for a career-high 181 yards. That can’t happen again with Newton under center, as bad decisions at the goal line probably won’t bail the defense out this time. As for the cornerbacks, I expect Vernon Hargreaves and Brent Grimes to finish the year strong.

Though I wouldn’t call Sunday a bounce-back performance – it’s nearly impossible to hold Drew Brees to less than 30 at home – I think the Bucs defense ends 2016 on a high note.

Offensively, I expect Winston to protect the ball and take advantage of the NFL’s 32nd ranked secondary. The Panthers defense isn’t the same without Josh Norman and Luke Kuechly, and while their young players have improved, this feels like the game the Bucs offense breaks out. We’ve been waiting for it to happen, so why not begin 2017 by lighting up the scoreboard.

Mike Evans gets his 12th TD, the franchise record-breaker for Winston, and the Bucs injury-depleted offense (which returns Demar Dotson) has a fine day to close the season.
Shapiro’s Score Prediction: Bucs win 27-17
Shapiro’s Pick To Click: DE Noah Spence

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About the Author: Zach Shapiro

Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders. Contact him at: zshapiro12@gmail.com
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Horse
4 years ago

I guess I’m alone on this? Dotson is back. Bucs are going to win this easily. Go Bucs

jme0151
Reply to  Horse
4 years ago

I think the same Horse. If Buc’s jump out front I think Panthers will mail it in.

Bucnut2
Reply to  Horse
4 years ago

Don’t think it will be an easy one Horse.

skipper
skipper
4 years ago

Bucs are beat up both mentally and physically, not seeing a win here.

Naplesfan
4 years ago

Bucs 31-Panthers 21

Bucs have a LOT to play for, I don’t see any lollygagging or quit in either the players or the coaches. They can of course lose this game with a poor performance, but I don’t believe they will.

scubog
4 years ago

To me this game is all about how the teams enter the contest mentally. Being at “home” one would think the Bucs would have the edge over a Panthers team that isn’t headed to the playoffs either. I don’t expect the Panthers to “mail it in”, but I do think if things go bad for them Cam Newton may throw in, errrr”put on the towel”. In recent past seasons, it sure appeared that many of our players just went through the motions……emotionless. Not so with this group. I’ve not seen any quit. I think our favorite team will come into… Read more »

Buc 1976
4 years ago

I hope Bucs come out firing on all cylinders. Does anyone know how many games Newton has played against Bucs in the last two season’s?
With Brate out someone has to step up!

plopes808
4 years ago

Looks like Funchess is out and Cam and Stewart are both questionable. I definitely expect them both to play though and we will definitely miss Gholston. VH3 is questionable as well and I hope to see him play. If not, ATV is a viable replacement.

I think we do enough to win this one as long as we come in hungry. After these last 2 disappointing losses, I think we come out angry and looking to prove that 5 game streak wasn’t a fluke.

Bucs 28-17

pittbullbuc
4 years ago

Bucs defense bends but doesn’t break. Offense w/ better offensive line work gets us a win 27-20.

Bucnut2
4 years ago

Four weeks ago I predicted Bucs would beat Chargers, lose to Cowboys and Saints and beat Panthers to finish 9-7. I am sticking with it though the Panthers are a scary team.

martinii
4 years ago

Just win the game and push us to 9-7. While we missed the playoffs, Having a winning season is so important. It shows us that despite a tough schedule, multiple injuries, and a few bad bounces we improved. With some great cap space and if we make a few good draft picks we could make the post season in 2017. I would hope we do not consider where we pick in the draft over our record, I would hope we do not point the finger at specific players or coaches as the root of our loses. Finally I would hope… Read more »