Can the Bucs extend their win streak?
The Panthers failed. Week one was their chance to 'get them now' when it came to Tampa Bay, but they were unable to execute. Now, Greg Schiano has his young team buying in, understanding their limitations, and playing within themselves. The potential was high for a team lacking discipline to self-destruct when met by a domineering head coach, and yet the Buccaneers have taken on their coach's persona, and this is largely why Tampa Bay have won four of their last five games, and are looking to make the Panthers their forth victim in a row. It will be up to Carolina's improving defense to stand tall, and hold back one of the NFL's most balanced offenses.
X-Factor: Luke Kuechly
The contest between two rookies, Luke Kuechly and Doug Martin may not get a lot of the limelight, but it should. The former leads all rookies in tackles, the latter in rushing yards. They're two players who everyone knew would be good, but few thought they would be this good, this quickly.
Doug Martin is sensational. When Panthers' fans imagine how Jonathan Stewart would have looked as a featured back in a run-first offense, it's Martin. On pace for almost 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns, he is the best rookie running back we've seen in a long time.
Then there's Luke Kuechly. Honestly, what more can you say about Kuech? 1,400 yards for a rookie RB is impressive-- 140 tackles for a rookie middle linebacker? Equally so. In fact, Carolina's rookie is on pace for even more, 161 at his current pace. He's instinctual, diffuses the first cut, and is a giant reason why the defense has improved in recent weeks.This will be a great match up.
Carolina run defense vs. Tampa Bay run offense
The Buccaneers boast the league's 11th ranked run offense, and the Panthers have the 16th ranked run defense. Like Tampa, this season the Panthers have benefited from teams being perfectly comfortable picking on their secondary, so they've been spared a lot of rushing attempts. This is a close match up, but ultimately the Buccaneers are better.
Martin excels when he hits the second level, and like Jonathan Stewart, good luck if you're a safety looking to be the last line of defense. I expect the Panthers will put on a good show, but their still developing defense aren't poised to take down this rushing offense.
Carolina pass defense vs. Tampa bay pass offense
Josh Freeman's resurgence has become a calling card for those hoping Cam Newton can get back on track. A 2011 season that saw the Buccaneers' QB make bizarre decisions with the football, has given way to a sometimes inaccurate, but smart football player.
Through ten games Freeman has thrown just five interceptions, and coupled that with 18 touchdowns. On pace for 3,600 passing yards, he's playing within himself, and utilizing the NFL's most underrated receiving corps to do it. Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are poised to combine for 2,100 yards and 18 touchdowns. They're both legitimate 1,000 yard receivers, and teams this year have struggled to cover both. I expect more of the same this week.
Tampa Bay are on the upswing, the Panthers are on the downswing. If that wasn't true Carolina would still have a general manager. Ron Rivera missed a chance to get this team while he could, and now this becomes hard-fought divisional contest.
On paper the Panthers have the talent to win, but in practice we have one team who play within themselves, and one who still don't seem to know their identity. Teams who don't know who they are lose, it's as simple as that.
Buccaneers 24 - Panthers 20
Season Panther pick record: 6-3