When the Panthers and Bucs met during the season's opening weekend Carolina was upset 16-10 as a road favorite. After winning six games in his rookie season QB Cam Newton excited the Panther fan base. There were legitimate reasons to believe Ron Rivera's team could jump into playoff contention if Newton improved, newcomers contributed, and key players returned to health. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay appeared to be rebuilding after dropping their final 10 games last year. Question marks surrounded the Buc's turnover prone QB Josh Freeman, and new head coach Greg Schiano. They meet today and the roles have been reversed.
Ten weeks have passed since the opener. The Panthers have been an unmitigated disaster that has led to the firing of General Manager Marty Hurney and Special Teams coach Brian Murphy. Meanwhile Tampa Bay has gotten mistake free play from Freeman, and the emergence of rookie RB Doug Martin has the Bucs dreaming of their first playoff appearance since 2007.
The Panthers dropped to 2-7 last week when former coach John Fox brought the Broncos to Charlotte and dominated Carolina in all phases of the game winning 36-14. Newton has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and ranks 27th or worse in the NFL in QB Rating, completion percentage, and touchdowns thrown.
As for Freeman, he has helped Tampa Bay win three straight and four of five after starting the season 1-3. The Bucs are just one-half game behind Seattle in the race for the final NFC playoff berth. Freeman, who threw 16 TD's, and was picked off 22 times last year, has thrown for 18 scores this season with only five INT's.
While the Panthers have RB's DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart signed to lucrative contracts, 10 years and nearly 80 million dollars between the pair, it is Tampa Bay's Doug Martin that has joined Freeman to lead the third highest scoring team in the league. Carolina's duo is averaging fewer than 70 combined yards a game on the ground and has scored three total rushing TD's. Martin got in the endzone four times two weeks ago against Oakland, has seven rushing scores on the season, and is cranking out nearly 100 yards per game on the ground.
The Buccaneer defense is best in the NFL against the run and worst in the league versus the pass. Last week San Diego's Phillip Rivers threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns but his interception returned by Leonard Johnson for an 83-yard Tampa TD helped the Bucs prevail 34-24.
This week Newton must do what Rivers could not, throw for big yardage without making the critical mistake. In eight career victories Newton has not thrown an interception. In 17 loses he has been picked off 27 times. The Panthers will go as far as Newton takes them. Thus far he has them positioned well for a top five draft pick.