CHARLOTTE – The Buccaneers and Tom Brady were a problem the Chiefs couldn't solve Sunday night.
For the Panthers, there are two cracks a year at it, and as they learned twice in 2020, it's hard to pull off.
The formula the Bucs used to win a second Super Bowl was elegant and simple.
All they really did was hire the greatest quarterback alive and surround him with quality blockers and a bunch of pass-rushers and speed on defense that created problems throughout the night for Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
The Panthers can't necessarily replicate the quarterback thing, as there's but one Brady, and he's under contract. As we wrote a week ago, they're looking to see if they can upgrade at that position, but there's no guarantee they'll be able to.
The other stuff is more doable, and certainly simple — if not necessarily easy.
The Chiefs' chances to win the title may have effectively ended when tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher were injured late in the season, leaving a pair of backups to contend with Shaq Barrett and Jason-Pierre Paul. It did not go well.
Meanwhile, the Bucs lined up a high-priced free-agent center, a first-round pick, and two seconds. When Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was talking about the Super Bowl contestants at the Senior Bowl, he referenced teams which had "elite quarterbacks, with really well-invested offensive lines." Both started there, but the Bucs still had their line intact, giving Brady the time he needed to be Brady.
The Panthers' need on the offensive line is glaring, and they know that. Center Matt Paradis is the lone returning starter under contract. They want to keep right tackle Taylor Moton before he gets to free agency, and the franchise tag is a reasonable possibility, considering the lack of other solutions available.
Beyond him, guard John Miller is perhaps the likeliest of the incumbents to return, but that still leaves plenty of work to do.
Unless they're going to invest heavily for a Trent Williams (the top name in the market at his position), there's no immediate and apparent answer at left tackle in free agency.
Drafting in bulk still seems the reasonable course, with something approaching last year's focus on getting younger on defense. The Panthers can't spend every pick on blockers, but they could use more than one to make sure they're not caught short.
Of course, they should also invest in the one commodity NFL teams annually undervalue — dumb luck. No one can anticipate when injuries are coming, and if Fisher and Schwartz were well, Sunday night's game could have been very different. But that's beyond anyone's ability to plan for, which is why you lay in as many contingencies as possible.
The Panthers are much closer to where they need to be on the other side of the ball.
The Todd Bowles-led Bucs' defense created all the pressure they needed on Mahomes with their front four, allowing a fast set of linebackers to cover and close.
Carolina can't match the Barrett/Pierre-Paul/Ndamukong Suh/Vita Vea front, but they're moving in that direction.
Brian Burns and Derrick Brown are pieces who can be part of that answer, though they need a three-technique defensive tackle who can disrupt inside, and another edge-rusher (such that every team in the league doesn't need another edge-rusher).
The Panthers have solid linebacker options in Shaq Thompson and Jeremy Chinn, though they could use another who can run sideline-to-sideline to give them increased flexibility on defense (or allow Chinn to be more of a safety).
While that's not Lavonte David and Devin White, it's closer than they are at other positions.
But the biggest difference in the Bucs' formula and the Panthers' current condition can only be fixed over time.
Yes, the Buccaneers could go out and spend in free agency on immediate veteran help (including touchdown scorers Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, and Leonard Fournette). Those guys were also there because of Brady, and because the Bucs were close enough to justify those kinds of experienced players.
Put simply, the Panthers aren't there yet, so trying to buy a playoff roster in free agency doesn't seem like a wise path, at least not yet.
And because time works in both directions, the Bucs can't be assured that this will last.
They've got a long list of free agents that will determine the next few years for them, a list headlined by Barrett, David, Suh, Gronkowski, Brown, and Fournette.
But they have the most important piece in place, which makes fitting in the other parts that much easier to pull off.