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Five things to watch at Tampa Bay: Division on the line


CHARLOTTE – It's win or watch playoff hopes end for the Panthers.

Carolina (6-9) travels to face Tampa Bay (7-8) on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Raymond James Stadium, where the Panthers have to beat Tom Brady and the Buccaneers for a shot at the NFC South. 

The Bucs take the division with a victory, but the Panthers get the playoff berth if they beat Tampa Bay and win next week at New Orleans. Leaving Tampa with a loss would keep Carolina out of the postseason, so it's a critical one this week.

Here are five things to watch in Week 17:


The Panthers laid the groundwork for a physical game with a fast start on the ground in last week's win over the Lions. They'll look to replicate that in Tampa Bay, rushing for at least 145 yards in all six of their wins this year.

D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard are each coming off career-best games last week. Hubbard put up 125 rush yards against Detroit and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry this season, fifth among running backs with at least 70 carries.

Foreman has put up five 100-yard rushing games since Week 7 (against Tampa Bay) and ranks third in the NFL with 774 rushing yards since that game. He ran for 165 yards against Detroit last week, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

The Panthers' 131.0 rush yards per game stands 10th in the league against Tampa Bay's 17th-ranked rushing defense that has allowed 120.3 rush yards per game.

Carolina ran for 173 yards in its Week 7 win over the Bucs in Charlotte. Foreman tallied 118 rushing yards against Tampa Bay in the season's first meeting.


Brady's Bucs haven't been at their sharpest offensively this season, but they have willed late-game wins out of challenging situations – fourth-quarter comebacks from 13 points down against the Saints in Week 13 and 10 points down against the Cardinals in Week 16.

Brady has led four game-winning drives this season, tied for fourth-most in the NFL.

Interim coach Steve Wilks knows the challenge ahead, even if the Bucs' offense is ranked 28th with 17.7 points per game this year.

"I think when you have the greatest to ever do it, it's pretty easy, pretty simple," Wilks said when asked about the importance of finishing strong in games against Brady. "They're never out of the game. Tom Brady is in a class of his own. He does a tremendous job. You can never count the Buccaneers out. Our focus again is going to be on us and doing the things that we have to do to prepare this week to go out and execute as we did this past Saturday."

The Bucs have been a heavy passing team, as Brady's 671 attempts and 443 completions lead the NFL. Carolina held Tampa Bay to just a field goal in their first meeting this season.


Jaycee Horn's wrist surgery this week has the Panthers' starting cornerback ruled out for the Bucs game, which leaves Keith Taylor Jr. and CJ Henderson starting against the Bucs' fourth-ranked passing game.

Taylor had a rough showing when Henderson was injured in Week 15 against the Steelers, but Wilks and his teammates have reiterated their support and confidence in the second-year cornerback.

"You've got to flush it," Wilks said. "At any position, but at that position, get ready for the next play; it's all about winning that rep. So flush it, let it go, and move on. And understand that we still have confidence in you." 

Wilks said he anticipates elevating veteran cornerback Josh Norman for the Tampa Bay game after Norman was signed to the practice squad this week. Norman, 35, played with the Panthers from 2012-15 and hasn't played an NFL game since he spent last season with the 49ers. 

Wilks said he didn't know how many snaps Norman would play in his first week of league action this year, but he wouldn't expect that number to exceed 25. 

The Panthers also have nine-year veteran T.J. Carrie as an option in the rotation.


Quarterback Sam Darnold has not committed a turnover through four games this year, a career-long streak since returning from a preseason high ankle sprain. 

Darnold has put up a 104.3 passer rating since his return, fifth in the NFL since Week 12 amon quarterbacks with a minimum of 80 attempts.

The Panthers have won the turnover battle in two of their last three games and haven't lost the ball since Week 12 against the Broncos. Carolina didn't commit a turnover in five of its six wins, and they didn't throw an interception in any of them.

Carolina's 16 turnovers this year are tied for the third-fewest in the NFL.


Wilks wasn't sure whether veteran return man Andre Roberts would be activated for the Bucs game when he spoke to the media Friday.

Roberts landed on injured reserve in September with a knee issue. Raheem Blackshear has taken kickoff returns in Roberts' absence, while Shi Smith has handled punts.

Roberts' 21-day window to return was activated before the Lions game, though he wasn't brought back to the 53-man roster before Detroit. The principal concern around the 35-year-old wide receiver's availability hasn't been his knee this week, as Wilks said he has been dealing with an illness.

Defensive end Marquis Haynes Sr. (ankle), tight end Tommy Tremble (hip), and offensive lineman Cade Mays (knee) were all listed as questionable in the Panthers' final injury report for Friday. Wilks said he expected Haynes and Tremble to play at Tampa Bay.

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