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Carolina Panthers vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers: prediction, preview, pick to win

By The Sports Xchange
Carolina Panthers vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers: prediction, preview, pick to win
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) needs to snap out of a slump that has seen him fail to complete 50 percent of his passes in five of his past six games. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium. TV: FOX, Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, Chris Spielman, Peter Schrager.

SERIES HISTORY: 33rd regular-season meeting. Carolina leads the series, 20-12. Carolina had won six straight until Tampa won this season's first matchup, 17-14 in Charlotte.

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KEYS TO THE GAME:

The Buccaneers can secure a playoff spot but need a win combined with a Green Bay loss, a Washington tie and victories by all of the following teams: Dallas, Indianapolis, Tennessee and San Francisco.

While the Panthers are wrapping up arguably the most disappointing season in the NFL this year, the Bucs are in turmoil thanks to their RB situation. With Doug Martin beginning a four-game suspension, Jacquizz Rodgers will lead the NFL's 22nd-ranked run game.

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Rodgers rushed for more than 100 yards in the Bucs' win at Carolina earlier this season in his first start. But the Bucs have struggled running the football this year and the Panthers are fourth against the run. Even without Luke Kuechly, they should be able to contain them.

That puts most of the pressure on Winston. Making things harder will be the loss of TE Cameron Brate, who was placed on IR with a back injury. Brate is the go-to guy in the end zone, along with Mike Evans, and has eight TDs. Winston has thrown five interceptions the past two weeks.

Carolina QB Cam Newton needs to snap out of a slump that has seen him fail to complete 50 percent of his passes in five of his past six games. The Bucs, who aren't necessarily great at anything on defense, won't be the toughest secondary Newton has faced. But it'll help him if RB Jonathan Stewart can provide 75-100 rushing yards.

And the guy the Bucs can never stop is TE Greg Olsen, even though LB Lavonte David is athletic enough to cover him.

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MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

--Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. Bucs LB Lavonte David. Olsen leads the Panthers with 77 catches for 1,051 yards and always destroys Tampa Bay. David will be the guy who is primarily responsible for covering him in the pass game.

--Bucs C Joe Hawley vs. Panthers DT Kawann Short. Hawley will need some help blocking Short, who has six sacks and one forced fumble this season and is a real force in the run game.

FRIDAY INJURY REPORT

CAROLINA PANTHERS

--Out: QB Derek Anderson (illness), DE Charles Johnson (foot)

--Questionable: QB Cam Newton (right shoulder), TE Greg Olsen (elbow), RB Jonathan Stewart (foot)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

--Out: DE William Gholston (elbow)

--Questionable: T Gosder Cherilus (groin, ankle), CB Vernon Hargreaves (abdomen).

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT:

Panthers LB Shaq Thompson. The 2015 first-round pick has shown steady improvement throughout his second season and racked up a career-high 11 tackles Sunday against the Falcons. With LB Luke Kuechly already ruled out for the season finale, Thompson will get another chance to man the middle when the Panthers go into their nickel package.

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FAST FACTS:

-- Panthers QB Cam Newton has 3,272 passing yards, his sixth consecutive season with 3,000. He has 14 TD passes and four INTs in eight career meetings. In his past four vs. the Bucs, he has 10 TDs (six passing, four rushing).

-- Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart has 278 rushing yards and two TDs in his past three road games. He has five rushing TDs in his past five division games.

-- Carolina TE Greg Olsen has 1,051 yards, making him the first NFL tight end with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Since 2013, he leads NFL tight ends in receptions (311) and yards (3,979).

-- Bucs QB Jameis Winston has 27 TD passes, tied for the most in franchise history. In his past four home games, he has seven passing TDs and two INTs.

-- Bucs RB Doug Martin is suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy for performance-enhancing substances, and the former Pro Bowl player said he will seek treatment immediately.

-- Bucs WR Mike Evans has 91 receptions, second most in a season in team history. He ranks third in the NFL with 11 TD catches.

PREDICTION:

The Bucs have a sliver of hope for the playoffs, which should be enough to motivate them to get their ninth win.

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OUR PICK: Bucs, 24-20.

--Chris Cluff

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