NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (3-8) at Carolina (8-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Carolina Panthers have yet to play the team they are chasing for first place in the NFC South, but that will change very soon.
And there in lies the dreaded trap.
The Panthers, riding a franchise record-tying seven-game win streak, can't afford to look past the suddenly-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina's string of victories comes after a 1-3 start and has the club right behind the 9-2 New Orleans Saints for the top spot in the division. The Panthers will visit New Orleans next Sunday before hosting the Saints two weekends later.
But first the Panthers welcome to town a Buccaneers team that has followed up an 0-8 start with three straight victories. Tampa Bay is now looking to become the first team since the 1978 St. Louis Cardinals to follow up a winless eight-game start with four consecutive victories.
Carolina was a contributor to Tampa Bay's slow start, dealing the Bucs a 31-13 setback on Oct. 24 as Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw a pair of touchdown passes and ran for another.
A victory by the Panthers this Sunday would keep up the recent trend of the two teams alternating series sweeps for a fifth straight season.
The victory over the Buccaneers put the Panthers at 4-3 and above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2008 season and the club has since matched is longest winning streak first set in 1996.
Carolina did so by rallying to beat the Miami Dolphins 20-16 last Sunday. Newton capped off an 80-yard, go-ahead drive by finding tight end Greg Olsen in the end zone from a yard out with 43 seconds to play.
The Panthers trailed 16-6 at the half, but Newton ran in from five yards out to score 6:52 into the third quarter and the Carolina defense pitched a second-half shutout.
"We didn't play as well as we're capable of in the first half and (the Dolphins) had a lot to do with it as well. But we came out in the second half and got the opening kickoff and we got some energy," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. "I thought the defense continued to play with a lot of effort. We did some really good things but we did some silly things. We gave up too many big plays."
Newton threw for 174 yards and was picked off once while rushing for 51 yards on eight carries. Carolina ran for 136 yards total, while Olsen and wideout Steve Smith both caught five passes.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has sandwiched a pair of three-point victories around a 41-28 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 17. The Bucs won for the first time in five road games this season by besting the Detroit Lions 24-21 this past Sunday.
The Buccaneers forced the Lions into a number of turnovers, grabbing four interceptions and recovering a fumble. Cornerback Leonard Johnson took a pick 48 yards for a score late in the second quarter and rookie corner Johnthan Banks sealed the win with a late interception with Detroit in field goal range.
"Our secondary really stepped its game today," said Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon. "That is one of the best passing offenses over there, and they have the best receiver (Calvin Johnson) of our time. So the job the secondary did today was amazing."
Glennon threw for 247 yards, a large chunk of that on an 85-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tiquan Underwood less than a minute into the fourth quarter to cap the scoring.
Underwood finished with two touchdowns, while running back Bobby Rainey was held to 35 yards on 18 carries a week removed from a 163-yard game on the ground.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
While recording four interceptions, the Bucs' secondary did allow Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to complete three touchdown passes and rack up 297 yards, while the run defense yielded 104 yards on the ground.
Tampa Bay linebacker and leading tackler Lavonte David will need his unit to stay disciplined against Newton, who has rushed for five touchdowns and posted a 10.6 passer rating in five previous meetings.
Newton has been a touchdown machine this season, throwing 17 scoring passes while also leading the club with five rushing TDs.
"I think his confidence level right now is very high," Olsen said of his quarterback. "I think he feels really good about what we do in the passing game. I think he feels really good about both the designed runs and his ability to extend plays when things break down. That's what just makes him so hard, because he's not a sitting duck back there."
That is what Tampa Bay is up against, though the defense will have strong safety Dashon Goldson back from his one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit versus Atlanta.
However, talented linebacker Mason Foster (55 tackles, 2 INT) missed the Lions game with a concussion, while cornerback Darrelle Revis did not play in the second half due to a groin injury.
Banks stepped into Revis' role and was able to keep Calvin Johnson out of the end zone, while safeties Kelcie McCray and Keith Tandy, who had an interception, helped fill Goldson's role.
"It is tough, but at the same time you've got guys that stepped up. When one guy goes down ... you've got guys that are biting at the opportunity," said McCray. "We don't wish for anybody to get hurt or be out, but we've got guys that look for those opportunities to go in and make a play such as Banks, or (cornerback Danny) Gorrer, or myself."
Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano has taken his fair share of criticism this season, but his decision to part ways with Josh Freeman and go with the rookie Glennon has looked good as of late.
The 23-year-old Glennon has set an NFL rookie record with a touchdown in each of his first eight starts and he is just 74 passing yards shy of passing Freeman's club-rookie record of 1,855 set in 2009.
In his last two games, Glennon has completed 77.3 percent of his passes and completed four TD passes to zero interceptions for a 142 passer rating. He has 10 touchdowns to one pick in his last six games.
Schiano said that Glennon has done a good job of not trying to force plays and is throwing the ball down the field with confidence.
"That is the development or the maturation of a quarterback," added Schiano. "I think we're all seeing it right in front of our eyes. I think this is a guy that certainly, as long as he continues on this trajectory, you'd love to have as your quarterback for a long time."
While Glennon has weapons such as Underwood and Vincent Jackson (58 receptions, 5 TD), the tight end position has seen better times. Tom Crabtree joined Luke Stocker and Nate Byham as tight ends on injured reserve after tearing his biceps versus Detroit, leaving rookie Timothy Wright as the lone tight end on the roster until Kyle Adams was signed this week.
Wright has been solid, ranking second on the club with 34 catches for 366 yards to go along with a pair of touchdown catches. His first career scoring grab came versus the Panthers.
Carolina is hoping to have defensive end Charles Johnson back after he missed Sunday's game versus the Dolphins due to a sprained knee. He is a half-sack shy of becoming the first player in franchise history to have nine sacks in four straight seasons.
Tampa Bay's recent surge may be a good thing for the Panthers at may have prevented them from taking the Buccaneers too lightly and looking past this game.
"We are facing a good team that is now playing with confidence, said Rivera. "We knew they were a good team when we played them earlier and now they are showing it."
Now Tampa Bay will need to show it against Carolina's third-ranked defense, one that leads the NFL with just 13.7 points allowed per game. That is bad news given that Tampa Bay is averaging only 19.2 points per game and is 31st with 303.4 yards per game.
"You have to finish strong. You finish strong, you'll be heading into 2014 with a great mindset," said David. "We have a great football team and you look around this locker room, we have a great group of character guys, leaders everywhere. Once this season finishes out, then roll over into 2014, we're going to hit the ground running."
The Bucs' defense did well against the pass-heavy Lions, but will be put to the test by a Newton-led offense that can move the ball a variety of ways.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 23, Buccaneers 13
11/28 11:38:42 ET