Thanks to a phenomenal four-game win streak, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered Week 17 with a prime opportunity to win the NFC South division title for the third straight season. To do so, Tampa Bay just needed to defeat New Orleans on New Year's Eve — something that didn’t happen.
Now the Bucs need to take advantage this Sunday or risk a meltdown that will likely cost jobs this offseason.
Despite this, Tampa Bay is still controls its destiny and simply needs to beat Carolina to punch a playoff ticket as division champs.
If there’s one thing working in the Bucs favor, its that they’re not necessarily facing a world-beating opponent on Sunday. The Panthers have struggled mightily this year, losing ten of their first 11 games with a brutal 0-6 record on the road — which was a league-worst. In addition, Carolina's offense was dreadful with Frank Reich serving as the play caller, with averages of 15.7 PPG and 265.9 YPG, both which ranked last in the NFL.
Carolina shouldn’t pose as much of a threat as some Bucs fans might fear
Not much has changed for Carolina since firing Reich with losses in four of their last five games and averages of 12.6 PPG and 277.2 YPG. Through it all, Bryce Young has completed around 59 percent of his pass attempts for 2,783 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, and ten interceptions for a 73.7 passer rating and a 33.4 QBR.
It’s not just rookie mistakes costing the Panthers. Young has been sacked 59 times this season, the most all time by a rookie quarterback, and the second most in the NFL, only behind Washington's Sam Howell, at 61.
Similarly, Young has had to usually operate without a strong rushing attack. This season, the Panthers have recorded 416 rushing attempts (20th in NFL) for 1,638 rushing yards (21st in NFL) and seven touchdowns (28th in NFL). That has come with the disappointing stint of free agent signing of RB Miles Sanders, who has just notched 126 carries for 414 rushing yards, one touchdown, and 3.3 YPC.
With the major regression of Sanders, third-year back Chuba Hubbard has become Carolina's workhorse over the course of the season. Hubbard has notched 215 rushing attempts for 819 rushing yards, five touchdowns, and 3.8 YPC, all career-highs. To top it all off, Hubbard has also caught 37 passes for 224 receiving yards out of the backfield.
Alongside Hubbard, veteran receiver Adam Thielen has been a key weapon for Young, catching 101 receptions for 1,002 receiving yards and four touchdowns, while posting over 70 receiving yards in eight games. Thielen's veteran leadership has been much-needed in Carolina's receiving core, as sixth year man DJ Chark is only other receiver having a decent season, with 33 catches for 479 receiving yards and a team-high five touchdowns.
Defensively, Carolina has remained as one of the worst teams all season, giving up year-long averages of 25.4 PPG (30th in NFL) 298.1 YPG (3rd in NFL), 175.1 PYPG (3rd in NFL), and 123.0 RYPG (22nd in NFL). Although the Panthers have allowed the third-fewest total and pass yards, most teams haven't needed to throw the ball against Carolina, and have opted to run against Carolina's vulnerable rushing defense.
With that, the breakout of Frankie Luvu has largely been overshadowed this season. who has enjoyed a major breakout season this year. This season, Luvu has recorded 119 total tackles, ten tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, ten quarterback hits, five passes defended, and one forced fumble, all career-highs.
Similarly, Brian Burns and Xaiver Woods have both had solid seasons alongside Luvu: Burns has totaled 48 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 15 QB hits, two passes defended, and one fumble recovered; Woods has posted 58 tackles, three tackles for loss, six passes defended, and two interceptions.
That’s what’s standing between the Bucs and winning the division. If Tampa Bay, a decidedly more talented team, can’t muster up a win over the league’s worst team, then perhaps a playoff berth isn’t as warranted as it otherwise seemed a few weeks ago.