As anyone who follows the NFL even casually knows, Sunday is not a "gimme" for the Carolina Panthers, even though they are 8-3 and Tampa Bay is 3-8.
This game looked like a six-inch putt a few weeks ago, but it has morphed into a four-footer with a sidehill lie. The Panthers can't lose focus against the Bucs, who have won three in a row and nearly beat Seattle in Seattle, which was their most impressive accomplishment of all. A few game notes:
-- The Panthers are going to have to rattle former N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon to win (the picture above is of Greg Hardy sacking Glennon in the Oct.24 meeting and was taken by The Observer's Jeff Siner). But Glennon is not easily rattled. Glennon has thrown just one interception in the past six games -- the lowest number of interceptions by any NFL quarterback over that time period. Because he has thrown so few interceptions, Glennon's quarterback rating is slightly higher than Cam Newton's (91.6 vs. 88.3).
-- Carolina is tied for third in the NFL with 15 interceptions -- already four more than the Panthers had in all of 2012 -- but were not able to pick off any of Glennon's 51 throws in the teams' first meeting Oct.24th. That's partly because a lot of them were dump-offs, but still.
-- You better believe Newton will know where No.54 is at all times Sunday. That's Lavonte David, the Buccaneers' most dynamic defender and the closest thing Tampa Bay has to Luke Kuechly. Like Kuechly, David is in his second season and very fun to watch.
-- To quantify the "Riverboat Ron" nickname a little, check this out. Since the Week Two loss to Buffalo, when Ron Rivera was burned by not going for the first down on fourth-and-1 in a loss to the Bills, he has gone for it seven times on 4th-and-1.
Carolina has converted six out of seven, including a key one last week when the Panthers were down by 10 points and on their own 41. On the seventh, Brandon LaFell dropped an easy pass against Arizona.
-- Incidentally, I was on a radio show with former Panther general manager Bill Polian earlier this week. Polian said he never would have gone for fourth-and-10 at his own 20 with 2:33 to go and trailing by three points, as Rivera did last week against Miami. He did go, the Panthers made it, and they ended up scoring the winning TD on the drive.
-- I don't foresee an easy game on Sunday, but I do foresee the Panthers' eighth straight win. Like the Panthers, I am 8-3 predicting their outcome this season. My prediction: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 17.