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Carolina Panthers

What to watch: Panthers at Buccaneers


The Panthers can't erase their record and start over, but they can erase some doubts before the season is over.

If they're to become the consistent winners they aim to be, winning back-to-back games would be a good starting point.

"It's a challenge to try to get back-to-back wins," rookie quarterback Cam Newton said. "That's not a stigma you want, so the challenge is on us to get the ball rolling. Then there's no telling what we can start doing."

The Panthers (3-8) will look for back-to-back wins for the first time since 2009 when they visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7) on Sunday. Carolina, coming off a 27-19 victory at Indianapolis, last won road games in back-to-back weeks in 2007.

Tampa Bay has taken a step back this season with five consecutive losses, but the Panthers can look at the Buccaneers as an example of how quickly teams can turn things around.

The Bucs lost 12 of their first 13 games in 2009 but won two of their final three. In 2010, they carried that over and went 10-6.

The Panthers are looking for a similar push, starting Sunday.

"You've seen in the past where teams that have done well won out at the end of rebuilding years and carried it into the next season. I think that's extremely important for us," center Ryan Kalil said. "We're learning how to win. Now hopefully we can string a couple of wins together."

Here are some keys if the Panthers hope to continue their winning ways at Tampa Bay's expense.

JUST JOSHING: The Panthers know how dangerous Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman can be, as evidenced by a play last year where he shed a couple of tackles and hit his tight end deep downfield.

"He's a great player, a big body that's hard to sack," Carolina linebacker Dan Connor said. "We found that out last year the hard way."

The Panthers might not find out till kickoff if they'll face Freeman, who is dealing with a shoulder injury. If not, they'll face another Josh in fourth-year pro Josh Johnson, who hasn't started a game since Freeman took over the reins more than two years ago.

Johnson would change the game plan but not the goal.

"I would imagine this might increase the opportunity for them to try to run it and the opportunity for them to go with play-action pass," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "With Johnson's athletic ability, I think we can expect a little more of getting him on the edge."


BLOUNT FORCE: Regardless of which Josh plays, the Buccaneers' quarterback should be repeatedly handing the ball off to running back LeGarrette Blount.

The 247-pound Blount is a handful and a key to Sunday's outcome.

Blount eclipsed 100 rushing yards once in his first five games, then he missed two games with a knee injury. Now, he's topped 100 yards in each of his last two games.

"He's a big part of what they do," Rivera said. "As he gets back into the flow, I think their offense will really start to click."

The Panthers rank 28th in the NFL against the run, allowing 137.5 yards per game, and have coughed up an NFL-high 15 rushing touchdowns. They did hold the Colts to 105 rushing yards last week.

GETTING MORE RUN: On the other side, the Panthers will try to exploit a Tampa Bay rush defense that has allowed the third-most yards (139.7 per game) and the third-most touchdowns (13).

The Panthers are coming off a season-high 205 yards on the ground, and they'll look to bang away at the Bucs from any number of directions. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart as well as quarterback Cam Newton have more than 400 rushing yards.


SPEAKING OF CAM: More than any opponent to date, the Buccaneers might feel the need to stack the box in hopes of slowing down Carolina's rushing attack.

But Tampa Bay's secondary – led by 15-year veteran Ronde Barber -isn't afraid of being left on an island against a relatively inexperienced quarterback.

"The one thing about Barber is that he might be old, but he's going to outsmart you," Newton said. "And those guys are extremely physical. They pressure you. They basically say, 'Our guys are better than your guys.'"

At the same time, only four teams have allowed more passing yards (254.9) than the Bucs, and only five have allowed more touchdown passes (19).

There's a good chance that there will be multiple big plays made when Newton throws the ball. The Panthers just have to make sure the large majority are big for them rather than Tampa Bay.

SOMETHING SPECIAL: Not a lot seems to separate these teams, so don't be surprised if it comes down to a kick.

Both kickers would love a chance to play hero.

Carolina kicker Olindo Mare missed a 31-yarder that likely would have forced overtime five weeks ago against Minnesota. The Florida native would relish another last-second shot.

Tampa Bay kicker Connor Barth played football at the University of North Carolina and grew up in Wilmington, N.C. So far this season, he's hit 20-of-22 field goals, including a 55-yarder.

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