The Bucs travel to Carolina on Sunday for a NFC South battle between two teams whose seasons have not exactly gone like the script that many felt it would.
The Panthers were expected to take a big step forward after their 2011 season in which Cam Newton shined as a rookie star in the making. Instead, he and the team have struggled, and the Cats sit at 2-7.
A rookie head coach in Greg Schiano has energized the Bucs, and they are sitting right in the thick of things at 5-4 in the NFC. Not so much in the South, but possibly for a wild card.
The Bucs stumbled to a 1-3 start, but since then QB Josh Freeman has been solid, throwing for 13 touchdowns and posting a 115.9 rating in the last five games. He hasn’t been picked off in his last 151 attempts.
“I think he understands better what we’re doing and what we’re asking of him,” Schiano said. “He’s playing within himself. He’s not trying to make plays. He’s just trusting his training and the plays come when you’re as talented as Josh Freeman is.”
Freeman went 14 of 20 for 210 yards and a pair of TDs in a 34-24 win over San Diego last week. Tampa Bay has averaged 37.5 points in its last four victories and has scored at least 28 points in a team-record five consecutive games.
The Bucs also got a blocked punt return for a score from Adam Heyward and an 83-yard interception return for a TD from Leonard Johnson versus the Chargers.
“What we’re trying to do is get guys loose and playing free, knowing what they’re doing instead of having to think about it,” Schiano said.
Tampa Bay, seeking its first four-game win streak since Nov. 2-30, 2008, has gone 1-3 in its last four visits to Charlotte.
The most recent of those was a 48-16 Panthers win Dec. 24 as Newton passed for three TDs and ran for a 49-yard score.
The Panthers, though, come in having lost six of seven and a 36-14 defeat to Denver on Sunday led to another change, as the team fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy the next day. Carolina let go general manager Marty Hurney on Oct. 22.
“This is a production-based business, and in the end, winning and losing is what it comes down to,” coach Ron Rivera said.
To get that much-needed win, the Panthers could use a much better performance by the offensive line. Carolina gave up seven sacks last week, tied for third most in team history.
Recently signed guard Jeremy Bridges, who made 28 starts for Carolina from 2006-08, might replace struggling starter Jeff Byers on Sunday after Rivera said Byers was ”exposed” by the Broncos.
Newton threw for two touchdowns for the second time this season last week but was intercepted twice, giving him five in the last four contests. The Panthers (2-7) were held to 14 or fewer points for the fifth time in 2012.
“It’s very embarrassing, but things are going to change – hopefully,” Newton said. “I can’t keep saying that and not holding up to it, but there are brighter days ahead for the Carolina Panthers.”
Tampa Bay has been very good, and they should have the edge here against Newton, who just can’t seem with the rest of his mates to get on track.
Look for a Bucs win, and for the Panthers to continue wondering why their season just hasn’t gone their way.
Tampa Bay 24 Carolina 20