The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won three games in a row and four of their last five. Meanwhile, the Panthers only have two wins on the season. Should we expect more of the same this Sunday, or will the Panthers rise up and make a game of it? I'm going with the former, so let's take a closer look at how things shake out.
A week ago this match-up looked much different to people. The Panthers were coming off a nice win in Washington and were a trendy pick by "sharps" vs the Broncos. That turned out to be an epic thud. Combined with another win from the Bucs, the favorite has flipped and Tampa Bay now sit at -1 or -1.5 favorites, depending on where you shop (odds from SBRforum). I think this line is going to move even more and close closer to -3 by kickoff.
Freeman Express Train?
About a month ago I heard Steve Fezzik on his weekly Pregame.com segment talk about how the Buccaneers were a fraudulent team. I didn't understand what the heck he was talking about because the advanced stats sure didn't agree with him. This came shortly after a three game losing streak and not long after Greg Schiano stormed the Giants "victory formation", so I can understand being skeptical about a college head coach leading a group of NFL men. Yet, like most so-called "sharps" out there, opinions vary wildly.
I wonder what he thinks of them now because ever since the bye week Josh Freeman has been on fire. He's put up 13 TD's and just one interception over that stretch and the emergence of Doug Martin is a welcomed compliment to the passing game. Now one could argue that they haven't faced the toughest defenses and I'd agree with that, but the offseason additions did give enough of us optimism that this thing could work.
How do they match up against the Panthers defense? I'd say pretty good, but it's not a landslide mismatch either. Carolina have been just average across the board this year with the primary bright spot coming from the defensive line. The question is whether or not they are ready to slow down this Tampa Bay offense while it's hot? Sooner or later the Bucs are going to fall back to earth, but for now there's no reason to think they're about to put up a dud. Despite some key injuries on the offensive line, this unit has been well-coached and the skill position guys are all living up to expectations.
When I make these picks I don't take sides in a personal way, but I did enjoy it when Von Miller mocked Cam Newton with a Superman celebration following a sack last week. This is the kind of treatment an immature and misguided quarterback deserves when he's not backing up his own premature attitude. If you saw the Giants/Panthers game earlier this year, you'll remember Cam bringing out the celebration after scoring a garbage TD in an embarrassing blowout. Instead, he should buy a clue for $100 and get back to playing good football.
I'm not sure if any offense in the league has been more disappointing this season than the Panthers. I really expected them to be a force this year with a near-unstoppable rushing attack, but where did that go wrong? Last week they managed to put up a measly 52 yards running in another stinker effort. It seemed like the entire sharp community were on the Panthers last week, but I was busy kicking myself for not riding the Broncos one more week.
The Bucs have been really strong this year against the run, so for the Panthers to win this game they'll need Newton to take advantage of a depleted Tampa secondary. Greg Olsen has quietly had a good season, but since they changed their two-tight end base formation this year, he hasn't been featured nearly enough. Losing Quincy Black to a scary injury isn't going to help things at linebacker either, so if Carolina want to get back on track this just might be the opportunity to do so.
The challenge for the Panthers is finding a clear-cut advantage in this game. I'm not sure Cam is able to take advantage of the Bucs pass defense in the same way he could've last season. Straight up, the Buccaneers are playing much more confident ball right now and should be ready for another hard-fought divisional game.
The Panthers also fired their special teams coach on Monday. They probably aren't as bad as their record suggests, but the offense is sputtering and they don't do anything particularly well.
The Bucs are 4-0 ATS on the road this year, while the Panthers are 1-4 ATS at home. I expect those trends to continue on Sunday.
NFL Pick: TB -1.