by Sharon Thorsland
A pair of Heisman trophy winners and top draft picks face off Sunday when the Panthers take on the Bucs in Tampa Bay. After winning five straight, the Bucs have lost their last two games and are 8-7 on the year, with the playoffs possible but highly unlikely. The Panthers' season will come to a close after last week's loss to the Falcons that dropped them to 6-9 on the year.
The game features a pair of dual threat quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. While Newton has already established himself as one of the best in the game after being named MVP last season, Winston has a chance to finish his first two seasons with more passing yards than any quarterback in NFL history. "Famous Jameis" has passed for nearly 3900 yards and 27 touchdowns, and needs 267 yards Sunday to break the record. Winston's achilles heel continues to be turnovers, though - he ranks 2nd in the NFL with 17 interceptions and has lost five fumbles, that's also tied for 2nd in the league.
Veteran receiver VIncent Jackson is on IR a knee injury but Winston still has his favorite target in Mike Evans. The third year player just earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl after racking up 1256 yards on the season, that's 5th in the NFL. He leads the Bucs and is third in the league with 11 touchdowns. "Definitely like Julio (Jones), he's an elite receiver in this league right now," says Panther cornerback James Bradberry. "He's a tall, strong guy who can also bring the top off a defense."
The Bucs have had trouble running the ball this season, averaging just 100 yards a game, that's 22nd in the league. Pro Bowler Doug Martin has been injured and now has been suspended by the league for violating the PED policy. Backup Charles Simms landed on IR this week for the second time this season, so former Falcon Jaquizz Rodgers will carry the load Sunday, he has 485 yards and two touchdowns. He'll face a Panther defense that ranks 4th in the NFL allowing just 90 rushing yards per game.
The Bucs defense is at the opposite end of the rankings, they're 24th allowing over 116 yards per game on the ground. In fact, they're near the bottom of the league in nearly every category - but one area they are very good at? Third down defense. The Bucs hold opponents to just a 35 percent conversion rate, that's 2nd in the league.
Several of the Bucs best defensive players have landed on IR this season, but they still have All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, he leads the team with 7 sacks and has two forced fumbles. They've got a pair of outstanding linebackers in Kwon Alexander and All-Pro Lavonte David. Alexander leads the Bucs and is 5th in the NFL in tackles, while David has a pick 6 and four forced fumbles. The Bucs also have a shut down corner in Pro Bowler Brent Grimes. "They're talented from top to bottom," says Panther fullback Mike Tolbert. "Those guys can play. They got some ballers on their team."
After losing to the Bucs on a last second field goal back in October, Tolbert and the Panthers would love nothing more than to hand their division rivals a loss in the season finale. They're also looking to set the tone for 2017. "It's very important," says offensive lineman Andrew Norwell. "It's the last game so we're going to finish strong, everybody understands that, and go out with a win."