Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers

Source: Lance King / Getty

The Panthers take on the defending Super Bowl champs Sunday, welcoming Tampa Bay to Bank of America stadium. The Bucs boast the NFL’s number one passing attack and scoring offense, led by the ageless Tom Brady. The 44-year old quarterback earned a record 15th trip to the Pro Bowl this week and is a favorite to win MVP honors. He’s thrown for over 4300 yards and 36 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions. “He’s incredible, being able to play at a high level for this long,” said Panthers cornerback and former Brady teammate Stephon Gilmore. “It’s impressive.”

Brady’s surround cast is also impressive, starting with a trio of Pro Bowlers on an offensive line that has allowed just 21 sacks all season, that’s number one in the NFL. He’ll be down some of his top weapons, though, with Pro Bowlers Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette all likely sitting this one out. But the Bucs have reinforcements – star receiver Antonio Brown is back from a suspension, and they signed All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell this week. And of course there’s the Gronk – All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare, he’s got 40 catches, six of them going for touchdowns. The Panthers will counter with a passing defense that ranks second in the league allowing just 179 yards a game through the air. The Bucs are managing just 97 rushing yards a game, and with Fournette out it will be Ronald Jones teaming with Bell, who is also an excellent pass-catcher.

The Bucs might not be able to run the ball but they sure can stop it, they’re giving up just 89 rushing yards a game, that’s third in the league. Their front seven is loaded with talent, including All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Pro Bowl linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, who have combined for 11 and a half sacks and four forced fumbles. The Bucs’ passing defense isn’t so good, they rank 20th in the league allowing over 244 yards per game. Of course, the Panthers have been having their own struggles throwing the ball, managing just 195 yards per game through the air, that’s 29th in the league. Beleaguered quarterback Sam Darnold is set to return to the lineup today, but who knows if that will help. And the Bucs will have star safety Mike Edwards back, he leads the team with three interceptions, two of those returned for touchdowns.

After dropping their last four game at Bank of America stadium, the Panthers would love nothing more than to snap their losing streak and give fans a win in the last home game of the season. It’s also a chance to knock off the defending Super Bowl champs and spoil their chance to clinch the division today. “I feel like we have a great opportunity going against Tom Brady and this high-powered offense and to really make a statement,” said Panthers defensive end Brian Burns. “Even though it’s the last three games, we can still take this stretch and really do something special with it.”

 by Sharon Thorsland