With a dominant Christmas Eve upset over the Detroit Lions in the bag, the Carolina Panthers will look to keep dashing towards the postseason in a consequential matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Here are six things to keep in mind for this big Week 17 matchup.
Break out the brooms?
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If the Panthers double up with another win over the Buccaneers this Sunday, adding to their Week 7 triumph, it’ll be the first time they’ve earned a season sweep of their swashbuckling divisional rivals since 2017. That campaign saw Carolina go into the playoffs with an 11-5 mark while Tampa went for a reserve 5-11.
The sweep would be a nice turnaround from what has largely gone down since quarterback Tom Brady joined the NFC South. With the “GOAT” under center, the Bucs have reeled in four wins over five tries on the Panthers.
Maintain the lead
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Before Brady arrived, the Panthers had a pretty good chokehold in the all-time series—going 24-15 against the Buccaneers prior to 2020. But now, in what’s still a decent enough edge, that’s tightened up to 25-19 as we enter Week 17.
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Speaking of Brady, Sunday may mark the final home game of his illustrious 23-year career. And with a win, the Panthers can almost make sure that it’s at least his last home game of this season.
With the Bucs visiting the Atlanta Falcons next week, the only way for Brady to get back into Raymond James Stadium after Sunday is to clinch the NFC South. That would, of course, allow them to host a Wild Card round game.
So if this may be it, Carolina has a cheeky chance to keep Brady away from a postseason curtain call.
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Even despite the Panthers’ recent resurgence on offense, 2022 hasn’t been an ideal year for either offense. Both teams are still floating due, in large part, to their steady defenses.
Carolina is still middling in the grand scheme of things, sitting at 18th in scoring. The Buccaneers—who haven’t hit the 24-point mark since Week 4—have been somehow even worse, ranking 27th overall.
Winds of change
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If I would have told you at the beginning of the season that the highest passer rating in the NFC South belonged to Sam Darnold, you probably would have called me crazy. But, here we are.
The fifth-year quarterback has amassed a career-high 104.3 passer rating over his four starts in 2022. That trumps this season’s tallies for Brady (87.9), New Orleans’ Andy Dalton (95.7) and Atlanta’s (is he still Atlanta’s?) Marcus Mariota (88.2) and Desmond Ridder (73.8).
This marks a very odd and unexpected change this season, as Darnold—who hasn’t even committed a turnover yet—may be starting to turn over into a career resurgence.
A sick three-way dance
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This matchup has been hyped up all week as sort of a NFC South title game. And while it does bear significant weight into the final results, there is a scenario in which neither of these teams takes the division.
If the Panthers win this Sunday against the Buccaneers, but proceed to lose the next week to the Saints—a Tampa Bay loss in Week 18 to Atlanta would secure the division for New Orleans. But, uh, the Saints—who absolutely need to win out—have to start by upsetting the NFL-best Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
As for the Panthers and Buccaneers—the former can win their final two outings to take the crown and the latter only needs a win this weekend.
Given the state of the chaotic collective of NFC South this season, none of these results would be particularly shocking.