Offensive key: Often this space is occupied by a discussion of something the offense hasn’t done well of late, so this could be the first time red zone execution has been brought up. The Panthers did an amazing job of reaching the red zone last week against the Seahawks but didn’t complete the job enough by reaching the end zone, doing so on just three of seven chances. Carolina entered the game scoring touchdowns in 73.5 percent of those situations, the third-highest rate of success in the NFL. Tampa Bay has scored 26 points in nine of its 11 games, including 28 against the Panthers four weeks ago. Field goals might not be enough.
Defensive key: Field goals might not be enough unless the defense kicks it into gear. Despite the points the Buccaneers have put up, they’re just 4-7 thanks to the points the opposition has put up. Some of that is on the Tampa defense of course, but some of it is on the Tampa offense for turning the ball over at a high rate. The Panthers turned Tampa over twice in their Week 9 win, but the defense hasn’t recorded a single takeaway in the three losses since. Forcing turnovers is the key ingredient in a winning recipe.
Gutsy guess: Linebacker Thomas Davis, who picked off Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston twice in 2015, has gone 27 consecutive games without an interception. The only drought longer in the 2005 draft pick’s career came at the beginning of it, when Davis didn’t record a pick in his first 44 games. Winston sometimes gets in trouble when targeting receivers across the middle of the field, where Davis sometimes roams. Davis’ drought ends Sunday.
Offensive key: Cam Newton’s right. His “assuredness on every single play” is stronger than ever. But he’s thrown an interception in each game of this three-game losing streak. The Bucs, meanwhile, have just three picks all season. Newton needs to keep that lowly total where it is. If he does, there’s a good chance the Panthers beat the generous Bucs in the turnover battle. And when the Panthers win that, they’re 5-0 this year and 42-2-1 since 2013.
Defensive key: In their six wins, the Panthers have totaled 18 sacks and 40 QB hits. In their five losses, the Panthers have just seven sacks and 16 QB hits. Take from that what you will.
Gutsy guess: The Bucs have allowed 45 pass plays of 20-plus yards, tied for third most in the league. Newton will have a season-high seven such plays, including touchdowns to Greg Olsen and DJ Moore.
Offensive key: The Panthers had been so consistently good in the red zone. Then Week 12 against the Seahawks happened. “The most frustrating thing for me is going into the game we were leading the NFC in touchdown percentage in the red zone,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “Unfortunately, you are going to have a game like that.” Carolina had an off-day in the red zone and it came back to bite them in a 30-27 loss. It’s imperative they prove that was just a one-game hiccup as they face Tampa Bay in a must-win situation.
Defensive key: Keep the ball in front of you. Deny big plays over the top. Make them earn it. Sounds simple, but as we’ve seen over the last few weeks, it’s not as easy as it sounds. The Buccaneers and their top-ranked offense like to stretch the field vertically and they’ll surely try attack what’s been a weakness for Carolina’s secondary of late. “Guarding against the deep ball,” head coach Ron Rivera said when addressing keys to success this week. “We know it’s coming.”
Gutsy guess: Defensive end Mario Addison has been stuck on 7.5 sacks for a few weeks now. He came close to getting Russell Wilson on a few occasions last time out, and I think he gets home for a couple sacks on Winston this week to provide the D-line with a much needed spark.