Things feel good in Carolina, and that's an uneasy position to be in. The Panthers are on the cusp of a winning season, players are fighting for each other and everyone is buying into the team's systems. Thursday's game should be easy for Carolina, but anything can happen in the NFC South.
Panthers' fans are weary of a trap game, and it's understandable why. The Buccaneers boast a talented team that's yet to find its stride, but has all the pieces to be a dangerous matchup for Carolina. Pair this with the Panthers' propensity to lay eggs on national TV and it's hard to feel too confident about a game that should be won on paper.
Everything changed with the loss of Doug Martin. Even in a down year he was the Buccaneers' most reliable offensive weapon, and had great success against the Panthers in 2012 -- rushing for 233 total yards in his rookie season.
It now appears Martin isn't lost for the season, but he'll certainly miss Thursday night's game.
DeAngelo Williams is having one of his best seasons since 2009, but he's on pace for a career-low 4.1 yards per carry, including just 3.3 over the last three weeks. At this point his primary use is opening up the pass, rather than be a true offensive threat himself. The run game is de-emphasized the more Cam Newton has the ball in his hands -- which isn't a wholly bad thing.
If Martin was playing we could have a legitimate discussion, but there's no comparison now he's set to miss the game.
This season has become about evaluating Mike Glennon for the future. All signs point to Tampa Bay having a top-ten pick in a quarterback rich draft, and need to ensure that he's more Russell Wilson than Jimmy Clausen.
Glennon has shown flashes this season, including a convincing game against the Atlanta Falcons where he threw for over 250 yards and two touchdowns without turning the ball over. If these games can become the rule, he has a chance to be their franchise quarterback, but it's premature to say this without a doubt.
Vincent Jackson has become the Bucs' best weapon, but Glennon hasn't been able to consistently get him the ball. Tampa's quarterback is averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt, which is flirting dangerously with Clausen territory. A big part of this is a poor offensive line that isn't able to buy him time.
In Carolina the Panthers are enjoying the latest iteration of Cam Newton. The accurate intermediate passer that's able to find holes in defenses, especially when opponents are committed to playing zone. Steve Smith managed to break out for the first time last week against St. Louis, and Greg Olsen gives the Buccaneers matchup issues in the center of the field.
Pass rush and Newton gives Carolina the edge, but Jackson is a significant threat the Panthers don't have an answer for. He'll be the x-factor in Thursday's game.
Anything can happen in the NFC South, but for now I'm sold on the notion that Carolina has finally learned how to win and knows what it takes to dispatch bad teams. On paper the Panthers run away with this one, and while anything is possible in the division I think there's simply too much talent on Carolina's side of the ball to drop this one against an injured team.