CAROLINA PANTHERS (4-3) AT TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (2-4)
SERIES HISTORY: 34th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 20-13. The Bucs swept the Panthers a year ago, but both games were decided by a total of four points.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers were intent on getting the rushing attack going in the game at Chicago so they're likely to stick with that mindset to some degree against the Buccaneers.
The offense has come under the most scrutiny because they have failed to score a touchdown in two games. They're looking for favorable matchups for receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, and those might be found against the Buccaneers.
The Panthers seem willing to allow quarterback Cam Newton to run with the ball and that's often the best way to pick up yards on the ground. Don't expect him to be totally unleashed, but there could be a few more plays called to get him free with his legs.
The key to stopping Newton is to keep him bottled up in the pocket. That has always been the case. Newton is most dangerous when he can extend pass plays with his feet or run with the football. He is hard to pressure and even harder to sack because of his size and strength.
Tampa Bay is last in the NFL with seven sacks, so Newton could have a field day. While he doesn't have injured tight end Greg Olsen, the new weapon is running back Christian McCaffrey, who will move all over the field.
Carolina should be able to count on its defense, which knows that Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston can be rattled. So putting a heavy pass rush on him will be a priority. That worked at times against Chicago's rookie quarterback, though it didn't result in turnovers.
The Panthers haven't been in a takeaway mode much this season and that's something they'll look to change. Given the amount of pass rush they're capable of applying, they'll need to get more benefits out of that.
The Bucs would like to get running back Doug Martin to set the tone and help their play action work. Winston has 10 touchdowns and only four interceptions, so he's protecting the football well. But the Panthers know how to pressure the quarterback, so he has to make quick decisions.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey vs. Bucs LB Lavonte David. McCaffrey moves around a lot in Mike Shula's offense. He's in the backfield, split wide as a receiver or in the slot. He leads the team with 44 receptions. David plays every down and will have some coverage responsibilities.
Bucs RT Demar Dotson vs. Panthers DE Julius Peppers. Peppers is mostly used as a designated pass rusher, but he has been effective with 6.5 sacks. Dotson is having the best year of his career and playing better than anyone on the team's offensive line.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin. He's hobbled at times with a sore knee, but he also continues to come through with some big plays. He'll be playing back in his home state and you can be certain that he'll want to make sure that Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston isn't the only former Florida State player receiving attention in this game.
FAST FACTS: Panthers QB Cam Newton has 2,068 passing yards (229.8 per game), 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 99.7 rating and has eight rushing TDs in nine career meetings. ... Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey leads NFL rookies and all running backs with 44 receptions and ranks second with 329 receiving yards. ... Panthers DE Julius Peppers has four sacks and a forced fumble in past four games. He has 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in past five meetings with the Bucs. He has 150 career sacks and needs one more to pass Hall of Famer Chris Doleman (150.5) for fourth most all-time. ... Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston passed for 384 yards, three TDs and one interception last week. He has 1,424 passing yards, 11 TDs and four interceptions in his past six games vs. the NFC South. In his past seven games at home, he is 6-1 with 1,788 yards (255.4 per game), 10 TDs and three INTs. He aims for his third game in a row at home with 300 yards. ... Bucs RB Doug Martin has four rushing TDs in his past six games. ... Tampa Bay rookie TE O.J. Howard set career highs with six receptions, 98 yards and two TDs in Week 7. ... S Keith Tandy had 12 tackles and a career-high two INTs in the last meeting.
PREDICTION: The Panthers and Buccaneers are looking for answers to their first-half woes. A win here would help.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 24-21.