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What to watch: Panthers vs. Buccaneers


Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross has a perfect idea for a Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

Gross, like every other player and coach in the NFL, would love an air-tight container that can store much more than holiday leftovers.

"Hopefully it's something we can keep in a bottle and unleash every week from here on out," Gross said in reference to last Sunday's road victory over a 10-win Houston team. "If we could have played more like that all year, we'd be having a more exciting end to the season."

The Panthers (5-9), coming off arguably their most impressive victory of the season, will now look for an encore performance against an opponent that they've already scored an impressive victory over.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) will visit Bank of America Stadium on Saturday for Carolina's home finale. Three weeks ago, the Panthers carved out a 38-19 victory at Tampa Bay.

Now that the Panthers have shown their capabilities, here's what they need to do to show they're capable of consistently getting the job done.

WIN THE MENTAL GAME: If a team with a 5-9 record could ever be in danger of overlooking an opponent, this is that spot.

With a 19-point triumph at Tampa Bay still fresh on their minds, the Panthers must successfully stave off human nature in the rematch.

"The big thing is we can't get complacent," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "That team has too many football players to take them lightly. Their record isn't indicative of the type of talent they have."

The Panthers could look past Tampa for any number of reasons: their most recent meeting; the fact that the Panthers don't have the playoffs to play for; or even the potential distraction of a Christmas Eve game.

Safety Jordan Pugh however, offers one big reason why the Panthers won't let that happen.

"This is a building block – one step towards where we're trying to get," Pugh said. "That's how you keep it going."


WIN THE ARMS RACE: Another reason why the Panthers can't take Tampa Bay for granted is because of the Buccaneers' quarterback situation.

Tampa Bay had to turn to backup Josh Johnson when the teams played three weeks ago, but now starter Josh Freeman is back.

"Freeman's a double threat, and he's a smart player," Pugh said. "He's going to throw it everywhere. He's got a live arm, a strong arm, and he's mobile, too."

Freeman threw four touchdowns against no interceptions in helping Tampa Bay sweep Carolina last season.

Though still dangerous, Freeman has struggled right along with the rest of his team this season. After compiling 25 touchdown passes versus six interceptions in 2010, he has 13 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in 2011.

LIMIT THE GIFT-GIVING: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's family is coming to Charlotte to celebrate Christmas – with a twist.

"Things have kind of changed," said Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. "It's like I'm Santa now."

For Carolina to win, Newton must avoid giving any gifts to the Buccaneers. The Panthers are 5-0 when Newton doesn't turn the ball over but 0-9 when he does turn the ball over.


WATCH THE STAT SHEET: Newton needs 18 yards to become the all-time passing leader among NFL rookies, surpassing Peyton Manning's 3,739 yards in 1998.

"I'm more worried about the win column than individual stats," Newton said. "If things are going right, those things will take care of themselves."

Regardless, fans will be watching for the mark to fall, and Newton's arm could help a couple of team marks fall as well. Wide receiver Steve Smith needs five receptions to pass Muhsin Muhammad for the most in team history, and running back Jonathan Stewart needs two catches to surpass Nick Goings' team record for a running back in one season.

In addition, Stewart needs four rushing yards to pass DeShaun Foster for second-most career yards in franchise history. Stewart has 3,333 yards. DeAngelo Williams leads the way and is 72 yards shy of 5,000 career yards with 4,928.

SCREEN TEST: Fans entering through the South Gate of Bank of America Stadium will be wanded by handheld metal detectors as a part of increased security measures being implemented by the NFL. Fans planning to use that entrance should allow extra time for admittance.

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