The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to remain players in the postseason race and notch their longest winning streak in four years on Sunday as they battle the division rival Carolina Panthers for the second time this year.
Playing under first-year head coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs have ripped off three straight wins to move above .500 at 5-4 and into second place in the NFC South. However, that is still a distant three games behind the first-place Atlanta Falcons.
Tampa Bay has averaged 37.3 points per game over its three-game winning streak and is coming off a 34-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers last weekend. The Buccaneers scored in all three phases, getting a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Josh Freeman, an 83-yard pick-six by rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson and a 29-yard return for a score by linebacker Adam Hayward following a blocked punt.
The Bucs survived 337 passing yards and three touchdowns by San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, picking him off twice while notching two sacks.
"Today we played team football. We held each other up, and it is critical against a good football team," Schiano said. "We ran into Philip Rivers, he's been as hot as a fire cracker the last two games. We did just enough to find a win. It's a good feeling."
An even better feeling would be for Tampa Bay to post its first four-game winning streak since a perfect November during the 2008 campaign.
The Bucs would love to duplicate their 16-10 season-opening win at home over the Panthers as they held Carolina to just 10 yards rushing. That matched the lowest total yards allowed on the ground in team history and Tampa Bay helped ice the win by picking off Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on back-to-back drives beginning late in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay's win came after it lost both of its contests last season to Carolina, which leads the all-time series 14-10 with a 7-5 advantage at home.
The Panthers, though, enter this game just 2-7 and failed to follow up a big win over the Washington Redskins, falling last Sunday by a 36-14 margin to the Denver Broncos.
Like Tampa Bay last weekend, Denver found a variety of ways to score versus Carolina. The Broncos scored a pair of touchdowns on offense, returned a punt 76 yards for a score and also got an interception returned 40 yards for a touchdown. That was enough to overshadow Newton's two touchdown passes to tight end Greg Olson.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera stressed after the loss that inconsistency has plagued his club all year long.
"Some of us have to make plays when you get the opportunities. I think that is a big part of it," he said. "If you look at it you'll see that we missed some opportunities. We missed some blocks. You have to be able to protect the offensive line. When the ball is thrown, you have to catch it. You have to make good decisions when you go throw it. Defensively we were really good on third down, but you can't give up a big play."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Special teams could play a big factor in this contest, which would favor the Buccaneers.
After all, the Panthers fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy on Monday because of what Rivera said were "philosophical differences and productivity" and it is unfortunate that the punt return for a score by Denver's Trindon Holliday may have been the final nail given as the play should not have even counted. Replays showed that Holliday's was in fact a touchback in favor of Carolina after the returner tossing the ball out of his hands in early celebration before crossing the goal line.
The NFL said in a statement on Monday that the play should have been reviewed by referee Alberto Riveron and overturned.
That doesn't help the Panthers, who tabbed assistant special teams coach Richard Rodgers to replace Murphy.
"I told coach Rodgers what I wanted," Rivera said. "I wanted things simplified. I wanted to come back to fundamental basics and that's the direction we're going to head right now."
For the Bucs, they used the play of their special teams to turn the momentum of their game and Schiano would like for the unit to continue to be aggressive.
"We've done some good things on special teams and then we've done some things that aren't so good. That's where we need consistency on our special teams. That will be something that if that can come and we can be consistent, that can win us some games here," Schiano.
Hayward scooped up the blocked punt by linebacker Dekoda Watson for the score and he will see a bigger role this weekend due to the loss of Quincy Black, who was placed on injured reserve this week following a neck injury versus the Chargers that saw him carted off the field and taken to a local hospital.
The 28-year-old had 32 tackles this year and while Hayward will likely see an increase in playing time, others like Watson and rookie Najee Goode will need to be ready as well.
"He's a professional. He works very hard and stays up to speed on all three linebacker positions," Schiano said of Hayward, a special teams captain. "That's why I say we'll have some flexibility. Guys will move around so it won't be just exclusive Adam for Quincy."
For his part, Hayward is ready to contribute.
"I've got to step in and be that starter and show people that this defense is not going to skip a heartbeat. The only thing we can do is go up and play better," he said.
Hayward and his defense will look to keep Carolina's 15th-ranked run defense in check and is giving up only 80.1 yards per game on the ground, tops in the league.
Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams finished with minus-1 yard on six carries in the Week 1 meeting, which fellow back Jonathan Stewart missed due to injury, and Newton had four yards on five carries.
Playing from behind versus the Broncos, Carolina ran for just 52 yards. Stewart led the club with 31 yards on eight carries, while Williams had six on six attempts.
Newton ran for seven yards on four carries and was under pressure throughout the game. He was sacked seven times, once for a safety. Carolina's offensive line has struggled since Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil landed on injured reserve due to a foot injury and the Panthers this week signed Jeremy Bridges, who started 28 games for Carolina from 2006-08.
"I feel pretty confident he's going to come in do some of the things we need him to do for us," Rivera said of Bridges. "I don't ready enough to start, but ready enough to be ready just in case."
Many of Carolina's offensive players praised the defense for its effort last weekend and ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were part of that. Johnson has 8 1/2 sacks after getting one versus the Broncos and also forced a fumble, as did Hardy.
The duo should have their eyes on Bucs running back Doug Martin, who following up his 251-yard, four-touchdown explosion in a win over the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 4 with over 100 yards of total offense against the Chargers. The 2012 first-round pick had 68 yards on 19 carries and caught another three balls for 51 yards.
Freeman, meanwhile, is the first Buccaneers quarterback to throw at least two touchdown passes in five straight games since Brad Johnson from Nov. 3-Dec. 8 during the 2002 season.
Many Panthers admitted how embarrassed they were following last week's loss and Rivera may need to start shaking things up to get his club on a positive path.
First and foremost will be preventing Tampa Bay's middle-of-the-road offense from churning out a number of big plays and that means containing Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
Carolina will need to test Tampa Bay's secondary and for whatever maturity Newton may seem to be lacking, he is still full of confidence. He should lean on his new top target Olsen and turn veteran Steve Smith loose in a much- needed win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 23, Buccaneers 20