Thursday, December 4, 2008

MNF Madness - Bucs @ Panthers Preview

By JC De La Torre

3 months and 13 weeks of football - 12 games have led to this moment. While the so-called experts fawned over the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints - these two teams just went about their business. Both boasted stingy defenses, both had offenses that did just enough to win - and really, isn't that what its all about? Winning? The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been joined in their anonymity. Neither boasts many stars, although there are names that are known - Julius Peppers, Steve Smith, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber among them.

Neither has had features on them on ESPN, the network broadcasting Monday Night's titanic battle that may go a long way in deciding the NFC South title. Neither have been the Fox National game or been on NFL Network's game of the week. Tampa Bay has had one Sunday Night NBC game, but shared the spotlight in their own town with the Tampa Bay Rays, who were playing Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at the exact same time. Both teams have been described as boring. Yet when the Buccaneers and Panthers take the field Monday night, the team's will walk in tied for the 2nd best record in the NFC and 3rd best record in the entire NFL. Once 60 minutes (or more) of hard fought football is completed, one of these teams will be in the drivers seat - but who will it be? One thing is certain, we should have one heck of a show for the national audience.

Let's look at the match ups of these two unappreciated power teams in the NFC -

Carolina's Offense vs. Tampa Bay's defense
The advantage in this match up is clearly the Buccaneers defense. Tampa Bay comes into this ballgame ranked 4th in the NFL in total defense, 3rd against the pass, 9th against the run, 4th in scoring, they're tied for third in the NFL in interceptions (17) and defensive scores (3). Carolina comes in with the 17th ranked total offense in the NFL, 7th rushing, but 22nd passing, and 14th in scoring. The strength of the Panthers offensive attack is their powerful running game, led by shifty DeAngelo Williams and powerful rookie James Stewart. Williams is coming off a 4 touchdown performance against the Green Bay Packers. The Panthers passing game is struggling this year, but with a big time threat like Steve Smith, you can never be relaxed. The Buccaneers defense, led by the immortal Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, along with young budding stars Barrett Ruud, Tanard Jackson and Gaines Adams have allowed only one 100 yd rusher this season (Jamaal Charles, Kansas City), and only one rushing touchdown. The secondary, bolstered by Jermaine Phillips return and the solid play of Phillip Buchannon and rookie Aquib Talib, has shown big play capability.

Tampa Bay's Offense vs. Carolina's Defense
Like Carolina, the Buccaneers offense is a middle of the road work in progress. Tampa Bay ranks 14th in total offense, 11th rushing, 12th passing, and 17th in scoring. They'll face a Panthers defense ranked 11th in total defense, struggling a bit against the run at 18th, while ranking 12th against the pass and 7th in scoring defense. The Buccaneers offense took a significant blow when leading rusher Earnest Graham went down with an ankle injury that ended his season. Coincidentally, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams has returned the Buccaneers lineup to bolster the running attack that now has fallen on the diminutive shoulders of veteran Warrick Dunn. The jitterbugging QB Jeff Garcia's mobility is both a blessing and a curse for the Bucs offense, with Garcia, the play is never dead but at the same time, Garcia will miss a lot of opportunities down field as he jumps and scatters around. Antonio Bryant has buoyed the passing game while Michael Clayton has played better and vet Ike Hilliard still proves to be dependable. Tight ends Alex Smith, Jerramy Stevens, and John Gilmore have made impacts in both the passing and running game. The greatest improvement in the Buccaneers offense is without question their offensive line. Led by center Jeff Faine, the Bucs boast an athletic, powerful line that can get to the second level and make plays. The two big issues for the Bucs offense has been red zone efficiency, the Bucs are second to last in the league in TDs scored in the red zone, as well as turnovers (Tampa Bay is ranked 19th with 21 turnovers).

The Panthers defense has been kind of bend-but-don't-break style that gives up a lot of yards but not a lot of points, they rank 7th in red zone defense. Julius Peppers continues to terrorize quarterbacks, while linebacker Jon Beason and corner Chris Gamble lead the second and third levels. The defense started the season off strong but has struggled of late, giving up 98 points in their last three games.

Carolina Special Teams vs Tampa Bay Special Teams
The Bucs have had a resurgence in their special teams thanks to the emergence of young return Clifton Smith. Thanks to Smith, Tampa Bay is ranked 2nd in the NFL in kick returns and 15th in punt returns (after being dead last in the NFL before Smith was called up from the practice squad). Smith is ranked #1 in kickoff return average (29.5) and is 2nd in the NFL in punt return average (17.6) and he became the first Buccaneer to have a kickoff return and punt return for touchdown in the same season. Tampa Bay also has the dependable Matt Bryant kicking and Punter Josh Bidwell, who continues to change field position and pin opponents in holes. Tampa Bay boasts some of the best coverage units in the NFL as well, ranking 5th in kickoff coverage and 11th in punt coverage.

Carolina is no slouch on special teams either. The Panthers are 9th in kickoff returns and 8th in punt return average as former Buccaneer Mark Jones does the returning for Carolina. Like the Bucs, the Panthers are very strong in coverage as well, ranking 8th in kickoff coverage and are 6th in the NFL in punt return coverage. The Panthers are in good hands in the kicking game with veteran John Kasay hitting 95% of his field goals and punter Jason Baker boasting a solid 45.3 punting average.

Jon Gruden won his 100th victory as a head coach in the NFL with last week's victory over New Orleans, John Fox put to rest rumors of his replacement by former Steelers coach Bill Cowher with a solid season by his football team.

Obviously, a raucous crowd will be a big advantage for the Panthers as they go bananas for the Monday Night Football cameras. The Panthers have a significant incentive to avenge the early season 27-3 beat down by the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has not played as well on the road as they do at Raymond James Stadium, where they are undefeated, but only .500 away from Ray Jay.

Final Prediction

After facing the dynamic New Orleans Saints passing offense, the Bucs will get a different test with a very tough Carolina running attack. The Bucs jumped on the Panthers early in their contest in Tampa, forcing Carolina to abandon the running game in an effort to catch up. As always, the Buccaneer offense must avoid the costly turnover and turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns, not field goals. If Carolina can force the Bucs offense into errors (turnovers, drive killing penalties), the Panthers can win this football game. Jeff Garcia is 9-2 lifetime against the Panthers and the Bucs have won 2 of the last three meetings overall and in Charlotte. I think the Bucs defense will stand tall, Clifton Smith will provide field position in a field position critical game, and the Bucs offense will do just enough to pull off a huge road win.

Final Score: Tampa Bay 24, Carolina 17

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