With six losses in their last seven games, including four defeats by one-score, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have quickly become one of the NFL's worst teams after a promising 3-1 start. As a result of their 4-7 record, Tampa Bay has a unique choice to make for the final six weeks of the season.
On one hand, the Bucs can gain an excellent start on a full rebuild beginning this offseason,. Tampa Bay currently holds the No. 7 pick in the NFL Draft, which puts them in a position to take someone like Alabama CB Kool-Aid McKinstry, but there are plenty of other quality prospects that will be available for Tampa Bay to consider.
Even with the chance to pick inside the Top 10, Tampa Bay is still firmly in the NFC playoff picture. Despite how bad things went against the Colts, the Bucs are just a few games back from the Falcons and Saints for first place. Tampa Bay will play the Falcons and the Saints in in two of the last three games of the season, with the chance to possibly overtake both teams in the standings and earn a playoff berth.
Based on the Bucs remaining schedule, winning their third consecutive division title is quite plausible. With five of their final six games against teams below 0.500, a late-season surge could make all the difference in the Buccaneers' offseason outlook.
This Sunday is a prime opportunity, as the Buccaneers will play the struggling Carolina Panthers (1-10, 4th in NFC South) at Raymond James Stadium.
Unlike Tampa Bay, the Panthers have been truly dreadful all season. Carolina is in the midst of a six-game losing streak and have just 12.3 points per game to start the season. Following their Week 7 bye, the Panthers managed to upset the surging Texans 15-13 — something the Saints and Bucs couldn’t do — but that’s all that has gone right for them.
A day after losing to the Titans, team owner David Tepper fired first-year head coach Frank Reich and named special teams coordinator Chris Tabor as the Panthers' interim coach. The firing of Reich marks the fourth coach fired in as many seasons for Carolina, and the sixth straight losing season since 2017.
Under Reich, Carolina's offense averaged just 15.7 PPG and 265.9 YPG, both the fourth-worst marks in the NFL. Coupled with a lackluster receiving group, there's no question why rookie quarterback Bryce Young has disappointed this year. Young has completed 61.7 percent of his pass attempts for 1,877 yards, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a 74.9 QBR.
To Young's credit, the 2021 Heisman Award winner has been sacked 40 times and has just 2.5 seconds from the snap until throwing the ball or pressure collapses the pocket. He hasn’t been great but neither has his situation.
As its turned out, Young's favorite target through the air has been veteran Adam Thielen, who has thrived in his first season as a Panther. Thielen has caught 77 passes for 728 receiving yards and four touchdowns, all team-highs. Outside of Thielen, No. 2 and No. 3 receivers DJ Chark (263 YDs) and Jonathan Mingo (286 YDs) have each failed to eclipse 300 receiving yards, although the former has caught three touchdowns.
To start the season, Carolina's running game was anchored by free agent Miles Sanders, who has notched 302 yards and one touchdown on 97 attempts. During the Panthers' recent stretch of games, however, RB Chuba Hubbard has seemingly overtaken Sanders' as the team's RB1, with 118 carries for 453 yards and two touchdowns.
Similar to their offense, defense has been an issue for the Panthers. Per Sports Reference, Carolina allows their opponents to score 26.5 PPG and have just 18 sacks, the third-worst marks leaguewide.
Fortunately, the Panthers have had multiple players play well on defense this year. Brian Burns has had a sensational fifth season, with 32 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, six sacks, 15 quarterback hits, one pass defended, and one forced fumble.
Alongside Burns is six-year Frankie Luvu, who has enjoyed a major breakout season this year. To clarify, Luvu has recorded 83 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, and four passes defended.