The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a long shot to make the playoffs, but they at least have a chance.
Tampa Bay (8-7) will play at Raymond James Stadium for the last time this season when they host the struggling Carolina Panthers (6-9) on New Year’s Day. The Buccaneers, currently in the eighth spot in NFC, need a lot of things to happen in order to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007. But they first need to defeat the Panthers to have any chance of extending their season.
ESPN reports that the Bucs need to defeat the Panthers and have the Washington Redskins and New York Giants tie their game as well as hope the Green Bay Packers lose to the Detroit Lions to earn the conference’s sixth seed. They also need the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, and San Francisco 49ers to win their games. The Bucs and Panthers kickoff at 1 p.m. ET, meaning that they are the first of the four teams in contention for a playoff spot to play as the Giants-Redskins start at 4:25 p.m. and the Packers-Lions are the late game.
Tampa Bay has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. Even if the Bucs don’t make the playoffs, a win on Sunday will give them their first winning season since 2010.
The Buccaneers began the season with a 31-24 victory over the NFC South champions Atlanta Falcons as Jameis Winston tossed four touchdowns. The Bucs followed that win by losing three straight. Standing at 1-3, the Bucs reeled off two straight wins over Carolina and San Francisco. They then ran into the Oakland Raiders and Falcons, who avenged their earlier loss with a 43-28 victory, and fell below the .500 mark once again.
Tampa started to turn things around with a huge 38-10 win over the Bears, which started a string of five Ws — including big victories over Kansas City and Seattle. The Bucs also beat the San Diego Chargers on the road and New Orleans Saints on the road.
The Buccaneers have lost two straight following a disappointing showing in New Orleans on Saturday. The Bucs never led in the game, and their defense gave up 417 yards of total offense with 120 coming on the ground. Tampa didn’t force a turnover in their loss to New Orleans, which is the first time that has happened since Week 4. Part of the reason the defense struggled was indecisiveness, safety Keith Tandy told Jenna Laine of ESPN.
“We weren’t just decisive enough in our run-fits. I myself need to be more physical. When receivers come in to block you, you try to drive those guys back to create piles, help out the run game and make it a lot easier on the cornerbacks to read if it’s a crack-block or if they’re running a route.”
Winston has had an uneven year though he has taken a step forward in his development. He is completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 259.2 yards to go along with 27 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Winston, who has committed 22 total turnovers, has thrown five picks in the last two games and seven in the last five. The second-year quarterback needs 267 yards to surpass Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck for the most yards in league history through their first two years, according to ESPN.
More concerning for the Bucs is their running game. The Buccaneers will be without their top two backs as Doug Martin was suspended by the NFL four games for PED use and Charles Sims was placed on injured reserve. That means Jacquizz Rodgers will likely get the majority of the carries. Rodgers has been quite productive when he has gotten the opportunity, leading the team with 485 yards on 112 carries and two touchdowns while hauling in 12 passes for an additional 95 yards. Peyton Barber and Russell Hansbrough could also garner some carries, per CBS Sports.
Wide receiver Mike Evans has cemented himself as a star. The third-year pro has a career-high 91 receptions for 1,256 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has increased his catch total in each of his first three seasons. The Bucs also won’t have tight end Cameron Brate, who is second on the team in receptions, on injured reserve with a back injury. Brate finishes the season with 57 catches for 660 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Bucs’ offensive line is a concern as they are going against a fearsome pass rush of the Panthers. The Bucs have permitted the 15th fewest sacks (32) though they are facing a Panthers’ team that has taken quarterbacks down a league-high 44 times. Defensive end Mario Addison leads the team with 8.5 sacks and defensive tackle Kawann Short has six sacks. Defensive ends Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson as well as defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has four sacks apiece.
Carolina’s defense is also tied for third with 16 interceptions. Safety Kurt Coleman tops the squad with four picks while linebacker Thomas Davis has three interceptions.
Tampa’s biggest concern, besides turnovers, is their defense. When the Bucs are on top of their game on that side of the ball, they are a playoff-caliber team. The Buccaneers have given up only 119 points in their eight wins, but they have surrendered 234 points in their seven losses. Overall, the Bucs are permitting 23.5 points a game along with 370.1 yards a game. Run defense has been their biggest issue this season, allowing the 24th most yards in the league with a little more than 116 yards a game.
Tampa has recorded 35 sacks on the year and forced 26 turnovers. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy leads the team with seven sacks while defensive ends Robert Ayers and Noah Spence are second with 5.5 apiece. It will help if defensive end William Gholston is able to play. Gholston missed last week’s game and is currently battling an elbow issue.
Cornerback Brett Grimes has three interceptions and 20 passes defensed. The Bucs have returned three interceptions for interceptions. Linebacker Kwon Alexander, who leads the team with 102 tackles, Linebacker Lavonte David and safety Chris Conte also have returned interceptions for touchdowns.
The Bucs have a tough task stopping quarterback Cam Newton on Sunday. Newton is having his worst season of his career but is always a threat due to his running ability. Tight end Greg Olsen along with wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Ted Ginn Jr. are big-time weapons.
[Featured Image by Bill Feig/AP Images]