The Carolina Panthers have won seven straight games to set up a big NFC South showdown with New Orleans in two weeks, but they're not looking past Sunday's division game against Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers (3-8) are also on a hot streak with three straight victories. Their only loss since a 31-13 setback to Carolina (8-3) on Oct. 24 was a 27-24 overtime thriller against the Seattle Seahawks, who at 10-1 have the best record in the NFC.
How will they do this time around? ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the rematch.
Newton: So Pat, the Bucs finally seem like they're playing at the level many expected them to before the season. What has been the difference?
Yasinskas: David, there have been a lot of different factors in the Bucs' surge. But I'd say the best thing to point to is the Bucs have been finishing games. That's something they weren't doing well at all early in the season. Beyond that, this team finally, firmly bought into coach Greg Schiano's system. You can see Schiano's philosophy -- play aggressive defense, run the ball well on offense and take some shots down the field in the passing game -- shining through. It took a lot longer than anyone would have liked, but the Bucs are clicking now and it might save Schiano's job.
Speaking of clicking, Carolina's on fire. What's been going right for the Panthers?
Newton: Much the same, Pat. They're finishing games, and the play of quarterback Cam Newton is a big reason. He led them to three straight fourth-quarter comebacks and two straight last-minute comebacks. The fourth-quarter comebacks are one more than he had in his first 40 starts combined. He's consistently making big plays when he has to, like the fourth-and-10 pass to Steve Smith from his own 20 with 2:33 remaining against Miami. Those things didn't happen in the past. But you could see it even in the first game against Tampa, which on the surface looked like a blowout. Remember, it was only 14-6 midway through the third quarter. It's all about confidence and players believing in one another. Speaking of quarterbacks, Mike Glennon was just getting his feet wet the first time these teams met. How has he improved?
Yasinskas: David, Glennon has improved every week since he's been the starter, and he's been a pleasant surprise. He may not be spectacular, but he's been solid. That's what Schiano wants out of a quarterback. Glennon doesn't need to be spectacular, but Schiano wants him to play mistake-free football and hit on a few deep passes. He's thrown only one interception in his past six games and he's getting better on the deep ball. Glennon hasn't shown he's elite yet, but he has shown he's a decent NFL quarterback. In Schiano's scheme, that might be enough.
As long as we're talking about quarterbacks and schemes, let's talk about Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Back when I was covering the whole division, I said Shula had gotten a bad rap in his previous stops in the NFL and at the University of Alabama. I thought Shula could be a big success with the talent he has to work with. Do you see that coming true?
Newton: Very perceptive, and you're right. Shula's philosophy is deemed conservative by many, but it's highly successful with the right personnel. How ironic, the former Alabama quarterback needed a former Auburn quarterback (Newton) to get much deserved notoriety. What I like about Shula's offense is the rhythm and balance. He's not afraid to pound DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert into the line for gains of two, three and four yards to keep the clock running and set up short third-down plays. He's also willing to turn a player like Newton loose enough to take advantage of his athletic abilities. I attribute much of Newton's sudden maturity to Shula's guidance and play calling. He's helped Newton learn it's not a one-man show, that it takes all the pieces working together to be successful.
Since we're on Carolina's offense, Pat, what will Tampa do differently this time to stop a unit that rushed for 129 yards and a quarterback who ran for 50 the first time they met?
Yasinskas: David, one of the biggest problems Tampa Bay's defense has had this year is losing contain against mobile quarterbacks. They have to do a better job of that if they're going to have any chance at slowing down Newton. That means the defensive ends and linebackers will have to prevent Newton from getting outside. This defense is good against traditional running games so, Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Tolbert aren't a huge concern. That's not the case with Newton. The Bucs also have to be concerned about Newton as a passer, and the best way to solve that is to put pressure on him. Tampa Bay has done a good job of pressuring quarterbacks lately. I know Carolina had some problems on the offensive line early in the season. Have the Panthers solved that?
Newton: They have for the most part, Pat. Jordan Gross is playing as well as any tackle in the league. So is center Ryan Kalil. But the running game -- outside of Newton -- has struggled of late as teams have stacked the box to stop it. Newton has led the team in rushing the past two games, and that's not what the coaches want even though the results have been good. Williams, who was third in the league in rushing early in the season, hasn't had more than 46 yards in six consecutive games. He's had only 45 combined the past two games. Overall, the Panthers are averaging more than 100 yards rushing between Williams, Tolbert, Stewart and Newton, but without Newton they wouldn't be close. So the Bucs may have to pick their poison. It should be interesting to watch.