The Carolina Panthers will need to bring their all in what is essentially a playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Because if they don’t, it’s all over for these cardiac cats in 2022.
Here are four key matchups for the huge Week 17 showdown.
Panthers QB Sam Darnold vs. Buccaneers QB Tom Brady
Umm . . . do the Panthers have the edge at quarterback on Sunday?
In what could be a rebirth of sorts, Sam Darnold has emerged in 2022 with a new beard and a new style of play. The fifth-year passer has completed 61.4 percent of his passes, has averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and boasts the fifth-best passer rating in the league (104.3) since his first start.
Brady, on the other hand, is possibly having the worst year of his career—and certainly the worst since he joined the Buccaneers. He’s on track to finish with career-lows in touchdown percentage (3.1) and yards per attempt (6.2) and has tossed seven interceptions in his last four outings.
This matchup come down to whichever of these quarterbacks can maximize big plays and avoid turnovers—something which Darnold has been excellent in and something Brady has struggled with mightily over the last month.
Panthers C Bradley Bozeman vs. Buccaneers DT Vita Vea
Since Bozeman took over at the center position back in early October, there has been a marked improvement with the offensive line. And that improvement has been particularly evident in the rushing attack, where the 28-year-old hog molly has helped establish a fierece ground-and-pound attitude.
He will be key in taking advantage of a not-so-stout Buccaneers running defense, one that is allowing 4.5 yards per carry. Bozeman should see plenty of All-Pro nose tackle Vita Vea, who is known as one of the best and more vicious run stuffers in the league.
The Panthers will need to keep him at bay if they want to be able to maintain their dominant run game and the tempo they had last week.
Panthers DE Brian Burns vs. Buccaneers OT Tristan Wirfs
Burns had led the charge for the Carolina defense in what has been a career year. He currently leads the team with 12.5 sacks, 21 quarterback hits and 18 tackles for loss.
And he may be able to amp those Pro Bowl numbers up even more this week against an immobile quarterback.
The All-Pro Wirfs will be partly responsible for holding the Panthers’ speedy rusher back and keeping the greatest quarterback of all time off the ground. Back in Week 7, Burns lit up the blindside manned by left tackle Donovan Smith—who was charged with a pair of pressures and a sack.
Panthers CB Josh Norman vs. Buccaneers WR Julio Jones
Tomorrow afternoon could be an awkward one for the Panthers secondary, which’ll be missing its best player in cornerback Jaycee Horn. That’s why they’ve brought in a familiar face in Josh Norman, who has a familiar feel with how this particular functions.
While it would be silly to assume that Norman is anything close to his 2015 All-Pro form, especially considering he was slinging lattes at his coffee shop just last week, he will need to help hold it down against a talented group of wideouts.
One of those pass catchers is Jones, who is kinda in the same ship as Norman. Even though he isn’t what he used to be, Jones just needs one play to turn the game on its head.
Norman will have to get back on that bike and help keep a familiar foe in check.