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Panthers on Prowl for Playoff Berth

by Sharon Thorsland

Sharon Thorsland
December 22, 2017 - 10:28 am

The Panthers welcome division rival Tampa Bay to Bank of America stadium for a Christmas Eve match-up, with a spot in the playoffs on the line. (Kick-off is set for 1:00 on WBT).  A win would guarantee the Panthers a playoff berth and keep them in contention for the NFC South title. It's a different story for the Bucs, who have suffered through an injury-riddled season and are just 4-10 on the year. But they took Atlanta down to the wire last week, missing the game-tying field goal as time expired. The Panthers improved to 10-4 on the season after a 31-24 win over Green Bay last week.


They might not have the wins to show for it, but the Bucs have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. They rank 11h in the league averaging 353 yards per game and put up 262 passing yards a contest, that's 5th in the league. Quarterback Jameis Winston leads the attack – the former Heisman Trophy winner has thrown for 2774 yards and 17 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. So what makes "Famous Jameis" so good? “The guy's able to extend plays, he's got a strong arm, he's a very athletic quarterback – and he's a competitor,” said Panther defensive end Wes Horton.


Winston lost one of his top weapons when rookie tight end O.J. Howard landed on I-R this week, but he's still got, Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. The Pro Bowl receivers have combined for over 1400 yards and seven touchdowns. But the Bucs' running game hasn't kept pace with the passing attack – they rank 27th in the NFL managing just 91 yards a game. All-Pro running back Doug Martin has struggled, but keep an eye out for 2nd-year player Payton Barber, he's emerged recently as a threat and has two touchdowns. 

The Bucs' biggest problem this season has been the defense, or lack thereof. The Bucs are dead last in the league in passing yards, third-down efficiency, points allowed and sacks. And they're next to last in total defense, allowing 389 yards a game. Injuries have played a big role, with All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David both missing time, and starting cornerback Vernon Hargeaves and safety Justin Evans both landed on I-R this week. But the Bucs still have plenty of talented players, starting with linebacker Kwon Alexander, he's 2nd on the team in tackles and has two interceptions. Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes anchors the secondary, he has three interceptions. Former Panther Robert McClain is the nickel back, he also has three picks, one returned for a touchdown. But even a dinged up Bucs defense is dangerous, according to Panther receiver Damierre Byrd. “No matter who they have in there they fly around, and they're playing with purpose,” said Byrd. “They're playing their hardest and trying to win games.”. 


Byrd and the Panthers know that the Bucs would love nothing more than to delay the Panthers postseason plans. And of course, this is a rivalry game, which means throw out the records.   “We know them, they know us,” said Byrd.  “Records go out the window, momentum goes out the window. It's about just lining up and executing and going out and play.” 

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