Once upon a time, the 2012 Carolina Panthers were considered a real possibility to make the NFL playoffs. They brimmed with optimism in training camp. Their Pro Bowl center took out a newspaper ad saying they would win the next Super Bowl.
And then Tampa happened.
On Sept.9th, the loss to Tampa Bay set the tone for this season -- and what a jarring tone it was. The Panthers had crushed Tampa Bay twice in 2011, but the season opener for both teams was a completely different story.
Carolina could only rush for 10 yards, foreshadowing what would be a season-long problem. DeAngelo Williams had minus-1 yard in six carries, which meant Jonathan Stewart (who didn't play) actually led his backfield mate in rushing after the first game.
Tampa Bay led 13-0 at halftime and won 16-10. The Panthers really have never quite recovered. At 2-7, they now reside in the cellar that was supposed to be the Bucs' home in 2012. Tampa Bay, at 5-4, has a shot at a wild card playoff berth.
-- Have you seen how many points the Bucs have been putting up? In going 4-1 over their past five games, they have scored at least 28 points in every single game. Luke Kuechly and company will have quite a struggle Sunday, particularly with rookie running back Doug Martin (862 rushing yards). Martin has been one of the best rookies in the NFL this season, and his yardage total is nearly as much as Cam Newton, Stewart and Williams combined (873).
-- Newton's arm will be the key to the Panthers' offense Sunday, not his legs. Tampa Bay gives up a ton of yardage through the air -- the Bucs are dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (Newton had 303 in the first game). With the attention Tampa Bay always pays to Steve Smith, this could be a Sunday where Brandon LaFell comes up big.
-- With the Panthers fumbling through another season and the holidays around the corner, I expect Sunday's crowd will be somewhat down. But the game that really might end Carolina' 101-game sellout streak comes Dec.23rd, when the Panthers host the Oakland Raiders two days before Christmas.
-- The Panthers have played seven close games this year and only been blown out twice (to each of the Manning brothers). I foresee another close game Sunday -- I am only 4-5 on Panther predictions this season after getting the Denver game right last week. My prediction: Tampa Bay 26, Carolina 22.