Football fans would love to hearken back to glory days of when this rivalry between the Panthers and Buccaneers was contentious. However, if you’re a fan of either one of these two teams, then you still might liken this rivalry to the level of Green Bay Packers/Chicago Bears or maybe Oakland Raiders/Denver Broncos.
The players and fans of these NFC South foes use to despise one another back when both teams were battling for division titles and alternated in a couple of Super Bowl appearances.
Fast forward to 2012 where both the Panthers and Buccaneers will be scrapping to emerge as division contenders, while at the same time hoping to avoid the title of “cellar dweller” in one of the NFL’s best divisions.
Tampa Bay will debut new head coach Greg Schiano on Sunday, while Panthers head coach Ron Rivera begins his second season with the team after going 6-10 in 2011.
In their two meetings last season, the Panthers all but humiliated the Buccaneers, winning 38 to 19 in Tampa and 48-16 in Carolina. The Panthers provided a heavy dose of the run, combining for 433 total yards on the ground and seven rushing touchdowns in the two games.
Expect Carolina to come out running in this one. Until the Buccaneers prove that their run defense has improved under new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, Carolina’s game plan won’t change. With running back Jonathan Stewart likely to be out on Sunday, the Panthers will utilize newly acquired running back Mike Tolbert and veteran DeAngelo Williams early.
All eyes will of course focus on the quarterbacks.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is entering his second season in the NFL with high expectations from fans to produce wins to go along with his staggering statistics. Week one could be a good opportunity for Newton, who faces a defense that ranked 30th overall in the NFL last season, allowing 3,814 yards through the air. This match-up could be the perfect situation for Newton to get comfortable in 2012, but only if the Buccaneers aren’t better prepared then they were a year ago.
Five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith is expected to play Sunday after missing the final two weeks of the preseason due to a staff infection in his foot. Smith and Newton launched a solid relationship last year, one that they hope to build on this season, starting Sunday.
Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman is beginning his fourth season, proving over the years that he has the ability to be a viable starter in the NFL. Tampa Bay needs more from their quarterback this year that will be tested early against a talented Carolina secondary. Freeman will have some new weapons to target with newly acquired tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Two additions that could get Freeman back on track after a disappointing season last year.
On the other side of the Football, don’t be surprised if the Panthers come out swinging in an attempt to rattle Freeman with the blitz. Carolina enters the season healthier than usual at linebacker and should look to make a statement on defense in this their second year under Rivera’s guidance.
If Carolina does make use of an aggressive defensive game plan, then look for Tampa Bay to alleviate the pressure with rookie running back Doug Martin and last year’s starter LeGarrette Blount. Having Clark to check down to doesn’t hurt either.
This game should be a division brawl. Both teams come into this match-up improved on both sides of the football and are inspired to make 2012 a success.
The Buccaneers are a talented team and one the Panthers shouldn’t go to sleep on.
Carolina needs a victory on Sunday. Not only for their confidence, but a road win in a tough division could go along way in establishing themselves as playoff contenders.