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Carolina Panthers v Jacksonville Jaguars

by Sharon Thorsland

It’s the season finale for the Panthers on Sunday, with division rival Tampa Bay coming to Bank of America stadium. There is a lot riding on this game for the 8-8 Bucs, who can clinch their third straight NFC South and earn a spot in the playoffs with a win. A loss would end their season. That means the Panthers have another chance to play spoiler. “That’s all the motivation we need,” said linebacker Brian Burns. “Obviously aside form the competitive nature that we already have, but being able to send them home? Great, great feeling.”

The Bucs struggled to run the ball most of the season but the past few weeks have been having more success on the ground behind second year running back Rachaad White, who has 915 yards and six touchdowns on the year. Bucs quarterback and former Panther Baker Mayfield is having a really good year, posting career highs in just about every category including over 3900 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. His favorite targets have been All-Pros Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, who have combined for 153 catches. Evans has topped 1,000 yards for an NFL record 10th consecutive season and leads all receivers with 13 touchdowns. He torched the Panthers for 162 yards and a score in their first meeting this season and they know trying to contain him this week is job number one. “He’s one of the best receivers in the league, top five in the league every year,” said Panther cornerback Donte Jackson. “He’s a great veteran player, he can beat you deep, he can beat you intermediate, he can run every route, he understands defense. There’s really nothing that he can’t do.”

Defensively the Bucs are best against the run, they rank 6th in the NFL allowing just 93 yards per game on the ground. Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea anchors a stout front line, and linebackers Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David are two of the best in the league. Rookie linebacker Ya-Ya Diaby has played his way into a starting role with 6.5 sacks in his last nine games. Stopping the pass has been a problem for the Bucs, they’re dead last in the league allowing over 260 yards per game through the air. But they’ve got an outstanding young safety in Antoine Winfield, Jr. The fourth year player has been all over the field, with five forced fumbles, five sacks and three interceptions. Veteran cornerback Jamel Dean is back from an ankle injury, and Carlton Davis is also expected to play after missing last week with a concussion.

These teams just faced off six weeks ago, a 3-point Bucs win in Tampa. The Panthers would like a little payback for that loss, not to mention the chance to end their division rival’s shot at the postseason. That’s something the Bucs did to them a year ago, and they’d love to return the favor. But a win would also give them some motivation going into the off-season and close the door on a season to forget. “Looking to turn a leaf,” said Panthers defensive end Derrick Brown. “We went through a hell of a season this year. So being able to turn it over and and start things fresh next year, that would be great for us.”