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

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The Sports Xchange
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-10) AT CAROLINA PANTHERS (10-4)

GAME SNAPSHOT

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KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Bank of America Stadium. TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber, Kristina Pink (field reporter).

SERIES HISTORY: 35th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead series, 21-13, including a 17-3 road victory in October. Tampa Bay won last year in Charlotte, 17-10.

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KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers are in the playoffs with a win, but they have bigger ambitions as they host the Buccaneers on Sunday.

To fulfill those ambitions, they must avoid looking ahead to their Week 17 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, which could be for the NFC South crown.

Carolina's first order of business will be containing Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, whose 2017 performance doesn't match the Bucs' 4-10 record.

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The third-year quarterback, who was 27-for-35 for 299 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions last week, has career highs in completion percentage, interception percentage and quarterback rating this season. And he accomplished that last week without lead running back Doug Martin, who is expected to return from a one-game suspension.

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The biggest key for Winston will be targeting wide receiver Mike Evans, who scored on Monday for the first time since Week 6.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton will try to exploit a Buccaneers defense that has been ravaged by injuries.

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Tight end Greg Olsen, who had a team-best 116 yards receiving on Sunday in his second game back from eight weeks on the injured list, gives the Panthers' offense another weapon.

Newton will test the Bucs' secondary with emerging star Devin Funchess and fellow wide receiver Damiere Byrd, who caught his first touchdown pass last week.

The running game's one-two punch of Jonathan Stewart and rookie Christian McCaffrey will cause problems for the Tampa Bay linebackers.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

--Buccaneers WR Mike Evans vs. Panthers CBs Daryl Worley and James Bradberry. The confidence is soaring for the pair of Carolina defensive backs who each have two-game streaks with interceptions. Evans has been tough for the Panthers to contain in the past. He made a team-high five catches in the first meeting this season.

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--Panthers C Ryan Kalil vs. Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy. Kalil seems to have worked back into form and now faces a long-time rival in McCoy, who's headed for another Pro Bowl. Kalil missed the first meeting against the Buccaneers because of a neck injury, so these two veterans will tangle only once this season.

FRIDAY INJURY REPORT

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

--Out: DE Robert Ayers (shoulder), WR DeSean Jackson (ankle)

--Doubtful: CB Ryan Smith (ankle)

--Questionable: TE Cameron Brate (hip, knee), LB Lavonte David (hamstring), DT Gerald McCoy (biceps), DE Ryan Russell (shoulder)

CAROLINA PANTHERS

--Out: G Trai Turner (concussion)

--Questionable: DE Mario Addison (hip), WR Devin Funchess (shoulder), G Tyler Larsen (foot), WR Russell Shepard (shoulder), LB Shaq Thompson (foot)

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers TE Greg Olsen. He missed the first meeting because of a broken foot. Now he seems to have regained his form, particularly with last week's nine-catch, 116-yard performance vs. Green Bay. That was his first game with more than 100 receiving yards since October 2016 against Tampa Bay.

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FAST FACTS: Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston completed 27 of 35 for 299 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions last week. He has five touchdowns vs. one interception his past three road games. ... WR Mike Evans led the team with 79 yards receiving and a touchdown in Week 15. ... TE O.J. Howard is tied for lead among NFL rookies with six receiving touchdowns. ... LB Lavonte David leads the NFL with five fumble recoveries and ranks first in the NFC with five forced fumbles. ... Carolina QB Cam Newton leads NFL QBs with 643 yards rushing. He has four seasons with 600, tied for most by a quarterback in NFL history. ... RB Jonathan Stewart has five rushing touchdowns in his past four games. ... Rookie RB Christian McCaffrey had a career-high 136 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown catch in Week 15. ... TE Greg Olsen led Carolina with nine receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown last week. ... DE Julius Peppers has 10 sacks and is one of four players in the NFL history with 10-plus sacks in 10-plus seasons. ... CB James Bradberry aims for his third straight game with an interception.

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PREDICTION: While the Buccaneers played hard in their Monday night loss to the Falcons, the Panthers are heading in the right direction as the postseason nears. A healthy Greg Olsen gives Carolina another boost.

OUR PICK: Panthers, 30-17.

--Ched Whitney

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