CHARLOTTE — First off, Merry Christmas. Hopefully, this visit to Panthers.com is better than a pair of socks when what you really wanted was a fire truck.
The Panthers are hoping the holiday spirit helps them break their recent losing streak against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers on Sunday, but there are plot lines and things to watch that extend beyond the immediate.
So as we clean up the wrapping paper and begin going to town on some fruitcake or that Stuckey's Pecan Log your uncle the trucker got you, we can at least offer the distraction of some football.
Here are five things to keep an eye on during Sunday's game.
GROWING INTO NEW ROLE
The Panthers had to use defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos a little differently last week out of necessity.
Turns out, it worked.
With the 2020 second-rounder forced into more of an inside role in the absence of Derrick Brown, he responded with 2.5 sacks last week against the Bills. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Gross-Matos is built more like the classic defensive end than the two built-for-speed edge rushers they start (Brian Burns and Haason Reddick), and offering different looks is something they value.
"When I got here, we drafted him, and he's just a big young physical guy that runs around," veteran defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. "He plays hard, he likes to play. He's been hurt off and on, but he's healthy now.
"Last game, we utilized him inside and outside more, which we should be, and I think you'll really like what you see over the next three weeks. He's got a lot of talent, and I'm excited to see him over the next three weeks."
Snow said that because Gross-Matos is still just 23, there's a chance he could gain another five to 10 pounds, which could make him better able to operate inside.
"But right now, he could play the end spot over the tight end, and move inside on passing downs," Snow said. "He can dominate the tight end physically. But right now, we're playing Haason and Brian. He'll be on our team next year, but who else will remains to be seen."
Reddick's three games away from free agency, and though he said he'd like to stay, there's no guarantee that will happen. The Panthers are also entering an offseason with needs at other positions (offensive line chief among them), so it's impossible to know what that depth chart will look like in a few months.
Gross-Matos having a larger frame could help with some run defense issues that pop up from time to time (a few teams such as Dallas, Minnesota, and New England have taken advantage of a pair of defensive ends that tip the scales under 500 pounds combined.)
LOOKING FOR A PLAY
Speaking of developing players the Panthers are interested in beyond the immediate, cornerback CJ Henderson will get plenty of opportunities over these last three weeks.
The Panthers traded a third-round pick to the Jaguars along with tight end Dan Arnold for Henderson and a fifth-round pick, and they said at the time it was about developing for the future. The former top-10 pick (they considered him in 2020 before taking Derrick Brown seventh overall) has shown some flashes, but is still waiting for his first interception here.
"I guess I've been doing fine, but I haven't made any plays yet," Henderson said this week. "So that's what I'm focusing on, growing as a player and a person still. So just getting that trust from my teammates and respect from my teammates and just growing from there."
While giving away Arnold wasn't easy, they still have a relatively small investment in a player with Henderson's size and range, so if he becomes a reliable third cornerback, the cost will be worth it. And as with Gross-Matos, other events this offseason could impact his role.
They know Horn and Bouye will be back, but Jackson and Stephon Gilmore are unrestricted free agents after the season, and it's unclear if either will be back.
BATTLE OF FORMER MVPs
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who will start Sunday (perhaps for the last time at Bank of America Stadium), has fared well in his previous games against Bucs quarterback Tom Brady.
Newton has won both meetings between the former league MVPs (in 2013 on Monday Night Football and in 2017).
He's one of just four quarterbacks who have played Brady at least twice (including the playoffs), never to lose, alongside Jake Plummer (3-0), Brian Griese (2-0), and Nick Foles (2-0).
In those two games against Brady and the Patriots, Newton completed 71.9 percent of his passes, for 315.5 combined passing and rushing yards per game, with six touchdowns and one interception, and a 128.2 passer rating.
Of course, that was a younger and healthier Newton, and time has diminished his effectiveness as a passer.
But as he showed in Arizona and with a clean game against Washington, he's still capable of summoning some old magic at times.
BE LIKE TOM
Yeah, about that old guy wearing red coming to town this weekend, even if he doesn't have the beard. And you wouldn't describe him as fat and jolly either, as 44-year-old Brady is in better shape now than he was when he entered the league.
Gilmore, who played with Brady for three years in New England, said that the thing that amazed him the most about Brady was seeing what he put into the process to achieve these remarkable results (seven Super Bowl rings, three league MVPs).
"Just think seeing him every day, seeing how hard he worked," Gilmore said. "It raised my level of preparation and work ethic on the field. When you see somebody like him, it rubs off on other players, and it motivates you. That's one thing I took from him, is his work ethic.
It's nothing magical you can do, you just have to go out and put the work in and make it happen."
DEPLETED BUCS OFFENSE
The Panthers aren't apologizing to anyone for a depleted lineup, but the Bucs have some serious injury issues of their own.
They lost star wideout Chris Godwin to a torn ACL last week, and fellow star receiver Mike Evans is out with a hamstring injury, along with running back Leonard Fournette. Veteran receiver Breshad Perriman is on the COVID-19 list.
The Bucs are getting receiver Antonio Brown back from a suspension this week, and they still have tight end Rob Gronkowski, but they're limping toward the postseason, and will be relying on some younger targets in the passing game.
BONUS GAMEDAY RECIPE
Remember that Harris Teeter has all of your Tailgate or Homegating needs! Enjoy this recipe from Harris Teeter & Tillamook – Spicy Loaded Nachos
Carolina is 24-18 all-time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, posting a 12-10 record at home and 12-8 on the road.