The Panthers (0-2) reached the NFC championship game last year and were a popular preseason pick to reach the Super Bowl this season. The Buccaneers (0-2), meanwhile, won six of their final eight games last season en route to an NFC South title.
However, both teams have looked listless in losing their first two games. After this week’s action, one of them will be three games out of first place in a tough NFC South—Atlanta and New Orleans, both 2-0, meet on Monday.
“I don’t believe they’re going to throw in the towel and give up,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. “I think they’re going to fight their way out of this hole, and we’ve got to prove we can do that. And so does Carolina—that’s why it’s going to be a heck of a game Sunday.”
Carolina has not started a season 0-2 since 1999 and has not dropped it first three games since 1998, when it opened 0-7. Tampa Bay last dropped its first two games in 2004, when it went 0-4.
While the Buccaneers have been held to a league-low three points through two games, Carolina has scored only 19—third-fewest in the NFC—while trying to overcome Steve Smith’s absence.
The Panthers lost their season opener 20-6 to Atlanta, and fell 16-13 in overtime to Minnesota last Sunday. They have been hampered by injuries, most notably Smith’s strained right hamstring that has kept him out of both games.
It remains uncertain if this is the week Carolina will finally see the return of Smith, who led the NFL with 1,563 receiving yards and tied Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald for the league lead with 103 receptions last season.
Smith practiced for the second straight day Friday and coach John Fox indicated it will be a game-time decision if Smith plays Sunday.
The Panthers have managed just one touchdown without their star receiver.
“Well there’s no doubt Steve’s a great football player. I think he proved that last year to everybody,” Fox said. “Obviously he’s a guy we prefer to have out there.”
Carolina also has injury woes in the secondary and the offensive line. Cornerback Ken Lucas (shoulder) is questionable and safety Shaun Williams (foot) is doubtful after getting hurt in the Vikings game. Left tackle Travelle Wharton endured a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 and center Justin Hartwig (groin) is questionable after sitting out last week.
Those offensive line injuries have had a negative effect on DeShaun Foster, who was held to 26 yards on 13 carries last week. Speedy rookie DeAngelo Williams, however, got 74 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries after getting no touches in the opener.
Nonetheless, Fox said Foster will remain the Panthers’ starting running back.
“We feel good about all our running backs, in particular DeShaun and DeAngelo,” Fox said. “Really, each game takes on its own personality and (DeAngelo) was making some plays, but so was DeShaun.”
The Bucs were routed 27-0 by Baltimore in their season opener and were nearly shut out again last Sunday, falling 14-3 to the Falcons. The offense gained 351 yards, 211 more than against the Ravens, but Carnell “Cadillac” Williams picked up just 37 yards on 15 carries.
Williams was held to 22 yards on eight carries in the opener, but his limited production can be chalked up in part to the Bucs trailing their opponents for the majority of the season.
“The scoreboard has taken him out of the game a little bit,” Gruden said.
Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranked sixth against the run last season, allowed a franchise-record 306 rushing yards against Michael Vick and the Falcons’ option-style offense.
Quarterback Chris Simms completed 28 of a career-high 53 passes for a career-best 313 yards against the Falcons, but threw three interceptions for the second straight game.
“I’m disappointed just like everybody else,” Simms said. “I’m extremely disappointed in myself. But I’m going to bounce back, come to work this week and be ready to go next week.”
“I’m not going to throw in the towel. … We’re going to try to pick up our level of play instead of changing players,” Gruden said.
The Panthers lead the all-time series 6-5. Tampa Bay ended a five-game losing streak to Carolina with a 20-10 win on Dec. 11 in the last meeting.