The Bucs' rot won't stop here, says Romilly Evans, as they square up to an in-form Carolina outfit...
"Newton is now managing his options better and choosing discretion as the better part of valour"
Carolina Panthers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Start-time: Friday, 01:25
TV: Live on Sky Sports 1
The recent outbreak of MRSA in the Tampa Bay have put the Buccaneers and all visitors to their locker rooms on high alert. But the Carolina Panthers, arriving in town for tonight's late clash, are not about to get caught up in any media hysteria. They have gone about their early practices and press conferences in professional fashion and have taken the necessary medical advice and precautions (careful binding grazes and cuts).
This no-fuss attitude is in keeping with a team that has founds its feet in recent weeks, with a two-game win streak (too soon to call it a streak?) and some encouraging group efforts which are fostering some play-off hopes in Charlotte. Another victory over the besieged Bucs in the small hours of Friday will put them in the black for the current campaign at 4-3 and officially stamp their postseason credentials.
Tampa Bay on the other hand, standing at a lamentable 0-6, represent low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking off at present. Indeed, they already seem to be making preparations for next year with rookie Mike Glennon taking over from the Josh Freeman (now in Minny) at quarterback a clear sign of patient ambition.
It's too soon to say whether the Bucs' belief in Glennon will prove well-founded, but it is obvious that he is struggling to adapt to the rarefied air of the NFL. He is only completing under 60% of his passes - and most of those are to seasoned campaigner Vincent Jackson who has 36 catches (more than their next two top receivers combined). While Glennon has notched five touchdowns, he has also been the author of three interceptions and seven sackings. In short, he needs time at a point when Tampa have none left.
The harsh reality is that the Buccaneers were closer to winning games under Freeman. Now with the spread of MRSA claiming their proficient kicker Lawrence Tynes, and offensive guard Carl Nicks, it's difficult to imagine Tampa improving much on their paltry season average of 14.5 points per game. To make matters worse, their star runner, Doug Martin, is also out with a torn shoulder. Oh and what's that coming growling through this undergrowth of uncertainty? A prowling Panthers defense which isn't allowing better opponents to get on the board easily.
The Carolina D is their team's trump card and reminiscent of the miserly machine which led the Panthers to an unexpected Super Bowl in 2003. This defense accordingly scores top marks in all the key categories of the NFL: points conceded (second), rushing defense (fourth), passing defense (fifth), total defense (third) and takeaways (eighth). They are motivated, rapid, physical and possessed of good anticipation skills (nine interceptions, 19 sacks, and seven fumble recoveries). These four tenets any co-ordinator's dream D are neatly embodied in linebacker Luke Kuechly who leads the line with 48 tackles.
On the other side of the ball, even Cam Newton (2011 number one draft pick, remember him?) is getting it together under center. The 24-year-old appears to be finally coming of age, connecting with 63.5% of his passes for 10 touchdowns and five picks. He has also rushed for 179 yards and a further two touchdowns.
As usual, Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams are helping move the chains with their respective and consistent aerial and grounds gains, but it is Newton's newfound decision-making abilities that have allowed Carolina to convert in the red zone. Earlier in his career, Newton's eagerness to deliver the big play invariably led to their rivals replying with bigger turnovers. Now, he is managing his options better and choosing discretion as the better part of valour. Carolina's last two successes are eloquent cases in point - completing 35 of 43 passes for 446 yards and four TDs.
So get the Panthers while they're pouncing and oppose the Buccaneers as they're walking the plank. While defense is the strong suit for both sides, the Total Points level of 40 looks very low. Even Carolina's band of blitzers will yield the odd decent concession, and the Bucs can provide some assistance to Newton in working the scoreboard. Play the overs with confidence.
Back Over 40 Total Points @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Carolina Panthers (-6) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Carolina Panthers (-2.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 1.9110/11 or better