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NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (5-4) at Carolina (2-7)



By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to remain players in the postseason race and notch their longest winning streak in four years on Sunday as they battle the division rival Carolina Panthers for the second time this year.

Playing under first-year head coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs have ripped off three straight wins to move above .500 at 5-4 and into second place in the NFC South. However, that is still a distant three games behind the first-place Atlanta Falcons.

Tampa Bay has averaged 37.3 points per game over its three-game winning streak and is coming off a 34-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers last weekend. The Buccaneers scored in all three phases, getting a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Josh Freeman, an 83-yard pick-six by rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson and a 29-yard return for a score by linebacker Adam Hayward following a blocked punt.

The Bucs survived 337 passing yards and three touchdowns by San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, picking him off twice while notching two sacks.

"Today we played team football. We held each other up, and it is critical against a good football team," Schiano said. "We ran into Philip Rivers, he's been as hot as a fire cracker the last two games. We did just enough to find a win. It's a good feeling."

An even better feeling would be for Tampa Bay to post its first four-game winning streak since a perfect November during the 2008 campaign.

The Bucs would love to duplicate their 16-10 season-opening win at home over the Panthers as they held Carolina to just 10 yards rushing. That matched the lowest total yards allowed on the ground in team history and Tampa Bay helped ice the win by picking off Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on back-to-back drives beginning late in the third quarter.

Tampa Bay's win came after it lost both of its contests last season to Carolina, which leads the all-time series 14-10 with a 7-5 advantage at home.

The Panthers, though, enter this game just 2-7 and failed to follow up a big win over the Washington Redskins, falling last Sunday by a 36-14 margin to the Denver Broncos.

Like Tampa Bay last weekend, Denver found a variety of ways to score versus Carolina. The Broncos scored a pair of touchdowns on offense, returned a punt 76 yards for a score and also got an interception returned 40 yards for a touchdown. That was enough to overshadow Newton's two touchdown passes to tight end Greg Olson.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera stressed after the loss that inconsistency has plagued his club all year long.

"Some of us have to make plays when you get the opportunities. I think that is a big part of it," he said. "If you look at it you'll see that we missed some opportunities. We missed some blocks. You have to be able to protect the offensive line. When the ball is thrown, you have to catch it. You have to make good decisions when you go throw it. Defensively we were really good on third down, but you can't give up a big play."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Special teams could play a big factor in this contest, which would favor the Buccaneers.

After all, the Panthers fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy on Monday because of what Rivera said were "philosophical differences and productivity" and it is unfortunate that the punt return for a score by Denver's Trindon Holliday may have been the final nail given as the play should not have even counted. Replays showed that Holliday's was in fact a touchback in favor of Carolina after the returner tossing the ball out of his hands in early celebration before crossing the goal line.

The NFL said in a statement on Monday that the play should have been reviewed by referee Alberto Riveron and overturned.

That doesn't help the Panthers, who tabbed assistant special teams coach Richard Rodgers to replace Murphy.

"I told coach Rodgers what I wanted," Rivera said. "I wanted things simplified. I wanted to come back to fundamental basics and that's the direction we're going to head right now."

For the Bucs, they used the play of their special teams to turn the momentum of their game and Schiano would like for the unit to continue to be aggressive.

"We've done some good things on special teams and then we've done some things that aren't so good. That's where we need consistency on our special teams. That will be something that if that can come and we can be consistent, that can win us some games here," Schiano.

Hayward scooped up the blocked punt by linebacker Dekoda Watson for the score and he will see a bigger role this weekend due to the loss of Quincy Black, who was placed on injured reserve this week following a neck injury versus the Chargers that saw him carted off the field and taken to a local hospital.

The 28-year-old had 32 tackles this year and while Hayward will likely see an increase in playing time, others like Watson and rookie Najee Goode will need to be ready as well.

"He's a professional. He works very hard and stays up to speed on all three linebacker positions," Schiano said of Hayward, a special teams captain. "That's why I say we'll have some flexibility. Guys will move around so it won't be just exclusive Adam for Quincy."

For his part, Hayward is ready to contribute.

"I've got to step in and be that starter and show people that this defense is not going to skip a heartbeat. The only thing we can do is go up and play better," he said.

Hayward and his defense will look to keep Carolina's 15th-ranked run defense in check and is giving up only 80.1 yards per game on the ground, tops in the league.

Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams finished with minus-1 yard on six carries in the Week 1 meeting, which fellow back Jonathan Stewart missed due to injury, and Newton had four yards on five carries.

Playing from behind versus the Broncos, Carolina ran for just 52 yards. Stewart led the club with 31 yards on eight carries, while Williams had six on six attempts.

Newton ran for seven yards on four carries and was under pressure throughout the game. He was sacked seven times, once for a safety. Carolina's offensive line has struggled since Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil landed on injured reserve due to a foot injury and the Panthers this week signed Jeremy Bridges, who started 28 games for Carolina from 2006-08.

"I feel pretty confident he's going to come in do some of the things we need him to do for us," Rivera said of Bridges. "I don't ready enough to start, but ready enough to be ready just in case."

Many of Carolina's offensive players praised the defense for its effort last weekend and ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were part of that. Johnson has 8 1/2 sacks after getting one versus the Broncos and also forced a fumble, as did Hardy.

The duo should have their eyes on Bucs running back Doug Martin, who following up his 251-yard, four-touchdown explosion in a win over the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 4 with over 100 yards of total offense against the Chargers. The 2012 first-round pick had 68 yards on 19 carries and caught another three balls for 51 yards.

Freeman, meanwhile, is the first Buccaneers quarterback to throw at least two touchdown passes in five straight games since Brad Johnson from Nov. 3-Dec. 8 during the 2002 season.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Many Panthers admitted how embarrassed they were following last week's loss and Rivera may need to start shaking things up to get his club on a positive path.

First and foremost will be preventing Tampa Bay's middle-of-the-road offense from churning out a number of big plays and that means containing Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

Carolina will need to test Tampa Bay's secondary and for whatever maturity Newton may seem to be lacking, he is still full of confidence. He should lean on his new top target Olsen and turn veteran Steve Smith loose in a much- needed win.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 23, Buccaneers 20

11/15 12:59:34 ET

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Scoreboard
Local
Final
UVA 27
UNC 28
Final
NCCU 42
SAVST 14
 
1:00pm Today
CAR
SEA
Final
SFG 11
KAN 4
8:07pm Tonight
SFG
KAN
 
Final
WISC 52
MD 7
Final
SMU 10
MEM 48
Final
ILL 28
MINN 24
Final
RICE 41
UNT 21
Final
NEB 42
RUTG 24
Final
KST 23
TEX 0
Final
ARK 45
UAB 17
Final
UVA 27
UNC 28
Final
EMICH 17
NILL 28
Final
NAVY 41
SJST 31
Final
BST 35
AKR 21
Final
GASTATE 31
GASO 69
Final
TOL 42
UMASS 35
Final
WMICH 42
OHIO 21
Final
COL 37
UCLA 40
Final
UMO 10
KSU 3
Final
WAKE 17
BC 23
Final
BUF 14
CMICH 20
Final
MARS 35
FATL 16
Final
PITT 28
GT 56
Final
SMISS 20
LATU 31
Final
MSU 35
MICH 11
Final
KENT 31
MSST 45
Final
STAN 38
ORST 14
Final
TCU 82
TTU 27
Final
OKST 10
WVU 34
Final
WKENT 66
ODU 51
Final
UTST 34
UNLV 20
Final
MIZZ 24
VANDY 14
Final
UCF 34
TEMPL 14
Final
WASU 37
ARZ 59
Final
CLEM 16
SYR 6
Final
LAMON 18
TXST 22
Final
TXSANANTO 0
UTEP 34
Final
COLST 45
WYO 31
Final
LSU 10
MISS 7
Final
TENN 20
ALA 34
Final
AUB 42
SCAR 35
Final
PSU 24
OSU 31
Final
UTAH 24
USC 21
Final
WASH 10
ARST 24
Final
HAW 18
NEV 26
 
Final
SJS 1
BUF 2
Final
TOR 1
BOS 4
Final
NYI 7
DAL 5
Final
PHI 4
DET 2
Final
OTT 2
NJD 3
Final
MON 3
NYR 1
Final
STL 3
CHI 2
Final
NAS 0
PIT 3
Final
MIN 7
TAM 2
Final
ARI 2
FLA 1
Final
CAL 1
WAS 3
3:00pm Today
WIN
COL
 
4:00pm Today
LOS
CLB
 
7:00pm Tonight
CHI
OTT
 
8:00pm Tonight
ANA
SJS
 
9:30pm Tonight
VAN
WAS
 
9:30am Today
ATL
DET
1:00pm Today
CIN
BAL
1:00pm Today
NYJ
BUF
1:00pm Today
NEP
CHI
1:00pm Today
TEN
HOU
1:00pm Today
JAC
MIA
1:00pm Today
TAM
MIN
1:00pm Today
CAR
SEA
1:00pm Today
KAN
STL
4:05pm Today
ARI
PHI
4:25pm Today
PIT
IND
4:25pm Today
CLE
OAK
8:30pm Tonight
NOS
GBP
Final
NCCU 42
SAVST 14