We’ll start with the injuries. Running back Leonard Fournette and linebacker Lavonte David officially went on injured reserve Thursday, ending their regular season and putting their status for the playoffs in question. Wide receiver Chris Godwin obviously suffered a tear in his ACL, ending his season (and possibly his time in a Bucs uniform as he’s a free agent this offseason).
While Tampa Bay’s signed veteran Le’Veon Bell to try to help solve the Fournette problem, they’ll have to rely on another former LSU Tiger in Kevin Minter to try to help replace David’s production on the defense.
The Panthers started this year as hot as anyone, winning their first three games, but it’s been tough sledding since, going 2-9 over their last 11 games and losing the last four. They’ve gone through a bit of an existential crisis, shifting through three different quarterbacks and showing little to no commitment to any of them, and even going so far as to fire a highly-touted young offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
The stats tell the story. Carolina is in the bottom 10 in every offensive category except running the ball, but its star running back Christian McCaffrey is (big surprise) done for the year, so the Panthers will have to rely on backup and rookie Chuba Hubbard.
But their biggest problem will be the QB position. Head coach Matt Rhule seems willing to do that weird thing they do in college where you start a game with one QB and have another finish the second half. As the saying goes, if you have 2 QBs, then you really don’t have any; the Panthers have Sam Darnold and Cam Newton on the field lately, so there.
While Carolina’s offensive struggles have been apparent (and will continue to be), its defense has been incredibly strong. Brian Burns is a first-time Pro Bowler and dominant pass rusher coming off the edge, its elite secondary is led by former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore with veteran corner AJ Bouye. The Panthers are second in the league in passing and total yards per game, but they do give up 115 yards per game on the ground.
The Bucs may use running back Ronald Jones quite a bit, especially considering that last season they saw him run for a 98-yard touchdown in their Week 10 matchup in Carolina. Plus, one of TB12’s favorite targets in Antonio Brown is back following his three-game “suspension” and that ankle injury that has kept him sidelined for the majority of the season.
So with all of that being said, with a pissed off Tom Brady coming off arguably one of his worst performances as a Buc, the Panthers should be an easy W.
But with the way things are going and how poorly the Bucs played Sunday night, I guess nothing is for certain.
Maybe get some pain medication ready with those leftover Christmas meals while you’re watching the game.
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