TAMPA, Fla. -- The stumbling Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are far from Super Bowl form in the early season.
Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium has developed into the Desperation Bowl with each team urgently searching for positive momentum in the NFC South Division race.
The Panthers (4-3) have dropped two straight games, including Sunday's punchless 17-3 defeat against the Chicago Bears, to go along with an earlier loss against the first-place New Orleans Saints.
Meanwhile, the last-place Buccaneers (2-4) are on a three-game losing streak (by a combined 13 points), punctuated by a 30-27 road defeat against the Buffalo Bills, when Tampa Bay surrendered a seven-point lead in the final minutes.
Both teams are questioning themselves and searching for solutions. The Panthers hoped to take pressure off quarterback Cam Newton this season, allowing him to utilize the team's playmakers. Instead, Newton already has suffered 22 sacks, including five against Chicago.
Carolina's offense has been hampered by the absence of tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil. Olsen broke his foot in Week 2 and is out at last eight weeks. Kalil started against the Bears, but re-aggravated a neck injury that had sidelined him for five weeks, leaving his status for the Bucs in doubt.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the transition to rookie playmakers such as wide receiver Curtis Samuel and running back Christian McCaffrey hasn't been as smooth as anticipated.
"It depends on how we as a football team react to what has gone on," Rivera said. "It's the old saying, 'Everybody has a plan until you get hit in the mouth.'
"Well, we got hit in the mouth (against the Bears) -- whether it was by our own doing or by them. We have to find out who we are."
Rivera said he and his coaches have wondered whether they are trying to do too much.
"That's one of the things we have to look at in terms of our personnel groupings," Rivera said. "You put some young guys, new guys out on the field and it's not like you've had in the past. You're missing some key elements.
"When communications are made, they're simple hand signals and their tempo picks up and they can play faster. We're in a situation now that you've got so many new guys as you're going through this communication, it takes a little bit to register."
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, with his status somewhat in doubt because of a shoulder injury, continued his statistically productive season with 384 yards passing and three touchdowns against the Bills. Most of Tampa Bay's woes have shown up on defense.
The Bucs have only seven sacks in six games and their rate of 3.2 percent on sacks per pass attempt is last in the NFL. Tampa Bay ranks 31st in third-down conversion percentage, 30th in pass defense, 30th in total defense and 29th in points allowed at 25.2 per game.
Now the bickering has begun.
Following the game at Buffalo, safety T.J. Ward, a former Pro Bowler acquired from the Denver Broncos in the preseason, spewed his frustration. Ward said he was at his "wits' end" after playing about one-third of the snaps against the Bills.
"I did not come here to rotate," Ward said after the game. "I did not come here to be a part-time player. I came here to make this defense better."
Wednesday, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy chimed in. While couching his statements in claims that he's a "team guy" and will do whatever is asked, McCoy said his pass-rushing effectiveness has been limited by Tampa Bay's 3-3-5 alignment.
"Your rush has to be different for sure," McCoy said. "You can be aggressive, but not as aggressive because when you've got a guy who can run like Tyrod (Taylor of the Bills) could or like Cam (Newton) can, you've got to keep your hands up front and really just kind of mirror the quarterback.
"For me, I make guys move. That's why I give guards hell. Because once I get them in space, it's a problem. But when I'm in a three-man front, I can't really do that."
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said he's aware of the complaints and quickly told the players it's always better to handle objections within the team instead of making them public.
"When you lose games you probably should have won, everybody is frustrated," Koetter said. "It's just human nature. The majority of our issues are self-inflicted. We're the only ones who can fix them."
A victory on Sunday would be the best problem-solver. That goes for the Panthers, too.
"The only thing you can do right now is you've got to get one game," Koetter said. "It is a factor (that) we have not played division games and those games can move you up fast. You've got to get one. You've just got to get one win."