Two rarities about Saturday's game -- it's being played on Christmas Eve and the Panthers are favored.
Because of the schedule, it will be interesting to see how many Panther fans actually show up for this one (or stay for the whole thing). Lots of people are traveling or involved with Christmas events. Any scalper who manages to make a lot of money Saturday is one fine scalper. If you've never seen a Panther game before and want to go see Cam Newton play without spending a fortune, this is the day. Just show up and make a deal.
One guarantee, though -- it will be more crowded at Bank of America Stadium than it was in Tampa three weeks ago. I was there for Carolina's 19-point win that day, and Raymond James Stadium looked about half full for most of the game and was far less than that in the fourth quarter.
-- If ever there was a chance for Newton to commit a turnover and still win a game, this is it. Even with Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman returning -- Josh Johnson played three weeks ago -- the Bucs aren't very good.
One of the most startling statistics about this year's Panthers is that the team is 5-0 when Newton doesn't make a single turnover and 0-9 when he commits one or more. That's too much pressure on Newton -- it's not realistic for a quarterback to have one turnover-free game after another, as much as the ball is in his hands. The unraveling Buccaneers, though, have lost eight games in a row and are a team that can be had even with some errors.
-- Hard to imagine that the Bucs on defense will do anything but stack up the middle of the line in all short-yardage situations Saturday. Newton ran for three touchdowns in the first meeting -- a 38-19 Carolina win -- and they were all from one yard away.
-- The Panthers won so convincingly the first time in part because they were the best in the red zone that they have been all year. Five times Carolina's offense got inside the Tampa Bay 20, and all five times the Panthers scored touchdowns. Carolina's run defense was also surprisingly good against the Bucs and will need to be again Saturday. Freeman has a better arm than Johnson, too, so he will likely attack deep against Carolina's injury-depleted secondary.
-- I misfired on Carolina's upset win over Houston Sunday, incorrectly picking the Texans to win. I'll try to get back on track with this prediction: Carolina 32, Tampa Bay 23.
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