CHARLOTTE – From 2013-15, the Panthers quite literally ran the division, becoming the only franchise to claim three consecutive NFC South titles.
But of late, division play has not been kind to Carolina.
The Panthers are 1-6 in their last seven division games. They've played one so far in 2017 – a 34-13 loss at home to the Saints in Week 3.
This week, the Panthers travel to Tampa looking to both snap a two-game losing skid and reestablish some footing within the division. It's the first of back-to-back games against NFC South rivals, with Carolina hosting Atlanta the following week.
"This is definitely a huge game for us," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We understand we're coming off of two losses, and this is a division opponent. We feel like those always count twice.
"You almost feel like this is really a must-win game for us. I can't speak for everybody, but that's my approach."
If that's what Davis is thinking, you can imagine how leaders for the Buccaneers feel entering this game with a 2-4 record after losing three straight.
"Division opponent – what better way to get back on track than back-to-back division games? We've got to do our best to start with this one on Sunday," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Carolina is still Carolina – tons and tons and tons of talent – and they don't take playing us lightly, especially last year, we got two wins on them. I'm sure they're thinking about that, and we know it."
The familiarity is what makes division games so challenging, and so gratifying if you're able to emerge victorious.
"We know how those guys play, they know how we play," quarterback Cam Newton said. "It's going to be a good game."
The Panthers currently sit a half-game behind the Saints (4-2) in the division standings, but that Carolina-New Orleans game in Week 3 is still the only game that's been played within the division.
Needless to say, the race to the top of the NFC South is just getting warmed up, and the Panthers must reverse their trend against division foes.
"What's going to start happening is you're going to start seeing a lot more division games," head coach Ron Rivera said. "If nobody separates themselves in the next four weeks, it could come down to Weeks 15, 16 and 17 when we all play each other. Quite honestly, I kind of envision that happening."
View photos of the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Buccaneers.