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Five things to watch against Tampa Bay: Brown knocking on the record

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CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have the opportunity to end their season on a good note Sunday, with one final game at Bank of American Stadium. The matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will give the Panthers a chance to notch a win against a team that defeated them in early December, but only by a field goal. Defeating the Bucs would also knock the NFC South rival out of the playoffs.

The Panthers, at 2-14, are the underdogs however, against the 8-8 Bucs. The Panthers are coming off a shutout 26-0 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Buccaneers are sitting at .500 after a 23-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. Eastern on Sunday at Bank of American Stadium. Fans can check out more information on how to watch here.

Here are five things to watch for during the game:

Brown on the edge of history Sunday

During a season that has seen some low lows and dark times, Derrick Brown has been a light. Not only with himself, but with his play. He has helped redefine what the game looks like for a defensive lineman and on Sunday, he'll sit on the precipice of a career-defining record.

With 96 tackles thus far this season, which leads all interior lineman in the NFL, Brown is three tackles shy of setting a new league record for total single season tackles by a D-lineman. It would break the record currently held and set by Miami Dolphins lineman Christian Wilkins, who notched 98 tackles one season ago. Wilkins record obliterated the previous number, set by J.J. Watt in 2014 with 78 tackles (Watt's record game in a 16-game season).  

Asked if a defensive lineman being second on the team in total tackles is a good thing, defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero guffawed and responded, "it's a very good thing. It means they can't block him."

Brown told reporters on Thursday that while he doesn't tally his tackles during the game, he knew coming into the season what Wilkins record was and what he'd need to pass him.

"Coming into the season, I just wanted to break the record here," Brown said. "So, in a position to do something special, so try to set it to where I can't even get it again. So, let's see this weekend."

If you can play, you will play

For teams that are either not in playoff contention or have already notched a berth, Week 18 can be a "throwaway" game, for all intents and purposes. Like blowing off homework after final grades are already turned in, many teams view it as pointless, unless they're making a last-minute push for the postseason. Furthermore, for the Panthers, with no first-round pick in this year's draft, there is theoretically less concern with the record affecting the draft pick.

And after quarterback Bryce Young took six sacks in the Week 17 loss to the Jaguars, one has to wonder, will the Panthers concede Sunday's matchup to save starters?

For interim coach Chris Tabor, the answer is a resounding no.  

"If you're available to play, you're playing," Tabor said Wednesday. "It goes back to having no regrets.

"I get the question with regards to draft picks, there's not a draft pick and those type of things.

In my world, it's about competing at the highest level. You are playing the very best in the world. You are coaching against the best in the world. What a challenge and what a great opportunity. It's not, you're not guaranteed to be able to do that again. So why wouldn't you put everything into this regardless of what your record is? And that's how we view it."

In other words, he has no plans to rest any starters on Sunday?

"No. We're gonna play football…we're playing the season. There's still a lot to play for. I understand about the record, and I can understand that you might view it as a throwaway game. It's not a throwaway game.

"My name and their name is associated with this game, so to me, that's very important. Because at the end of the day, that's all you have, is the name on your back."

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All eyes on Mike Evans

As far as game plans go, "stop Mike Evans" seems like a solid option. It is much easier said than done however. The veteran receiver has posted over one thousand yards in every season in which he's played. He is now in his 10th year and has already accumulated 1,233 yards, currently the third most of any single season in his career.

"He's a heck of a player," Evero said Thursday. "You definitely have to account for him in your game plan."

He's a game wrecker, who put up 162 yards and a touchdown in the last meeting between the Panthers and the Bucs, despite the Panthers possessing one of the best passing defenses in the league. That unit is still third overall in the NFL, only giving up 175.1 yards per game through the air. Evans could test them again if not properly prepared, but ironically, that early December game could actually serve as a blueprint of what not to do for the Panthers.

"Poor plan in and poor play, we gave up a couple of things that we wish we could have back," Evero said of that performance. "But, I think we just got to understand what type of player he is, what he can do, especially down the field. And we have to be better at understanding that and containing him."

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Baker's return to the Queen City

Sunday marks the return of quarterback Baker Mayfield to Charlotte. The former Panthers QB went 1-5 as a starter with Carolina, before finishing last season with the Los Angeles Rams. Coming back to Charlotte means he will not only be facing some old teammates (for the second time this season) but a former team who has their sights set on knocking him out of the playoffs.

As Derrick Brown chases his tackle record on Sunday as well, he wouldn't mind it coming courtesy of Mayfield.

"Love Bake, but trying to give him hell (Sunday), that's for sure," Brown joked.

The passer did not practice on Wednesday with a rib injury, and was limited on Thursday. Coaches are optimistic about his chances however, and Bucs coach Todd Bowles told reporters on Friday that Mayfield is "full-go" for Sunday. 

Mayfield is currently tied for fourth in the league in passing touchdowns, with 28 through the air; he's also added another on the ground. Tabor, who was around Mayfield when with the Panthers last season, was careful to not compare Mayfield's record and performance as a Panther with that as a Buccaneer. 

"He's such a competitor, he's always been a competitor and I can't really, I don't wanna answer that question because things are different," Tabor said. "Offenses are different so I don't think it's fair to compare those things. I'm just seeing a player that is so competitive and takes a lot of pride in things and he's been highly successful in this league. Those are his traits and I'm seeing those traits come out.

"Baker is a heck of a player and I got a lot of respect for him as a player and a person."

Matthew Wright

Is Matthew Wright Mr. Right?

The Panthers could be turning to Matthew Wright on Sunday, as kicker Eddy Piñeiro is considered doubtful with a right hamstring injury. Piñeiro tweaked his hamstring during warmups ahead of the Week 17 matchup with the Jaguars. The Panthers essentially played without a kicker during the game, letting linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill kickoff, and turned the ball over on downs while in Jaguars territory, twice, instead of kicking a field-goal. 

It took little to no time at all to bring in Wright. 

Wright has kicked for three different teams over the course of three seasons. He has not appeared in a game for a team this season, while spending time on practice squads. He did spend the 2023 preseason with the Panthers, pinch hitting for Piñeiro. That familiarity helped the Panthers bring someone into the fold in the final week of the season. 

"We had him in the, obviously in preseason, so familiar with him," Tabor said. "But when you get to this time of year, you're looking to see who's out there and those things and obviously he was so, looking forward to seeing what he can do." 

The most action Wright has seen during a season, was while kicking for the Jaguars in 2021. During that season, he appeared in 14 games, going 21-24 on field goals, including 4-6 from beyond 50 yards, with a long of 56-yards. 

Tabor doesn't want to put a number on Wright's range if he does play Sunday, "if I told you that, that'd kind of be a competitive edge," he joked. But also wants to wait to see what Wright is able to do in warmups on Sunday. 

"Range is always determined on how the day goes," Tabor explained. 

"He's done well. Kicked him in the workout and then kicked him again today (Friday). So was able to get the whole battery and everything going today. So, worked out a few things and I like where it's at."

View photos from the Panthers' practice on Thursday.

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