Even with the best record in the league and headed into the playoffs as one of the top contenders, the Panthers still have plenty to play for in their final regular season matchup back home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Last week saw the Panthers suffer their first loss of the season in what was a poor outing for the entire team. The offense was flat following their first drive last week and struggled to string successful drives together while the defense gave up big yardage through the air and was unable to stop the Falcons offense on third downs.
This week they’ll see a familiar foe in the Buccaneers who they defeated handedly in Week 4, 37-23. In that matchup they picked rookie quarterback Jameis Winston four times and dominated on both sides of the ball until the Bucs racked up stats in garbage time.
This Tampa Bay team is much improved since these two last met 13 weeks ago and Carolina will have to take notice of their improvement and adjust their gameplan. They’ll also try to avoid an upset loss that could potentially prevent them from securing homefield advantage in the playoffs and lead to a loss of momentum as the postseason nears.
Here’s what to watch for as the Panthers look to finish out the season strong and build positive momentum heading into the playoffs.
Test of Depth
Carolina has had its fair share of injuries to key players this season and this week they’ll face a true test of their depth as a number of starters are set to be sidelined for this contest.
Jonathan Stewart who has sat out the last two weeks has been ruled out again and last week, backup running back Fozzy Whittaker suffered a high ankle sprain and will also be out. Kurt Coleman and Ted Ginn Jr., two key starters from this season, are listed as doubtful this week and appear unlikely to suit up for this matchup as well.
All should be able to return for the playoff push but for this week the Panthers will need to trust a number of young players to keep things rolling in Carolina.
Cameron Artis-Payne should be featured heavily this week in the backfield as he has performed quite well in his limited opportunities and undrafted rookie Brandon Wegher will likely be active for the first time this season and could see a few carries come his way and also should see time as a returner. Second year safety Tre Boston will step in in the secondary to try to replace Coleman’s impact while the wide receiver group will likely bump Philly Brown and Devin Funchess up as the top wideouts with Jerricho Cotchery and Brenton Bersin also available.
The Panthers have boasted solid depth all season long at various positions and this matchup will challenge that notion once again.
The Panthers’ offense has been a pleasant surprise as a whole this season and has produced with a slew of mediocre passing options and a questionable offensive line that has turned itself into one of the best in the league.
Last week though, this unit that has been near unstoppable was anything but, scoring just once on the first drive of the game. After that, Cam Newton and company couldn’t get anything going and when they did they shot themselves in the foot with penalties and negative plays that forced them out of scoring position.
This week they’ll look to bounce back and get back into the rhythm they have become accustom to. Without Ginn and Stewart though, Newton will need to get back to his Superman self.
All season long, Newton has had a solid rapport with his receivers, regardless of the drop issues, and this week will once again test that and will require the MVP candidate to do what he has all season, orchestrating scoring drives by whatever means necessary with Artis-Payne, Devin Funchess and Greg Olsen.
15-1 or 14-2
It may seem like just a small blemish on what has been a terrific season in Carolina but a second loss here could be big in terms of not only playoff standing but also in the attitude and confidence of this team.
This Panthers team has not lacked swagger and confidence this year but last week appeared like a sluggish and outright defeated and tired team from the get-go. With the loss the pressure to remain undefeated is no longer there and they can worry about what lies before them this week.
With the Arizona Cardinals right on their heels, the Panthers need to remain focused even in Week 17 of this long, draining season. The opportunity for homefield advantage would be a big boost for this team that has been excellent at home and feeds off the Bank of America Stadium crowd and losing that could severely damage their confidence, regardless of the first round bye they already secured.
Carolina desperately needs to remain focused and get back to what has gotten them in this position to help them in all aspects as they look towards Super Bowl 50.