Tampa Bay Could Yet Be Carolina Panthers Nemesis

All NFL fans should be clued-in by now about the dominance of the NFC by the Carolina Panthers...even Boomer Esiason, who sticks to his claims about the Arizona Cardinals being "the team to beat" in the NFC.

Carolina has been disrespected all season for unknown reasons by nearly all of TV-land's top "analysts." These "analysts" all seem to suffer from multiple maladies. One is that they pick the team that has been better in recent years to win a particular ball game rather than the conditions of the here and now that actually matter.

Case in point, every single analyst predicted wrong games on Thanksgiving. Every last one of them. They ALL said Green Bay would defeat Chicago at Lambeau, even though the Pack has looked decidedly humdrum all season long and that Chicago was playing a LOT better ball than they had last season or September of this one. To me, that was at best a "trap game" for the Pack and at worst a loss because of the issues and expectations. 

They lost.

Nearly everybody got the Detroit game right, but only two of eight picked the 10-0 Carolina Panthers to win at the 3-7 Cowboys. The alleged "reasoning" was that the Cowboys had Tony Romo back, and he had the team undefeated in his tiny sample size of play, at 3-0. 

Only a single analyst was as good as 2-1 on the day. Everyone else? Losers.

These "analysts" were acting no better than giddy fans were. What, one guy is going to make THAT much difference? The Panthers defense, the most opportunistic one in the NFL as it has gathered more turnovers than any other, apparently didn't matter and would simply fold under the Great Arm of Yon Deity Romo!

Well, they were partly right, at least. Romo's presence did help up the scoring as he threw two TD passes - both to Carolina defenders.

Toss in his next pass attempt after throwing a pick-six to Luke Kuechly, Romo apparently decided Kuechly was a better receiver than his own guys and threw it right back to him again...resulting in a Panthers field goal.

So, Tony Romo was directly responsible for a 17-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers when you don't consider the entire afternoon's offensive production by the finer team from Carolina in the aaaaafternoon.

So if it's the Bucs that are the problem, why all this talk about the Cowboys?

It's because I'm telling you the things the TV analysts are too blinded by those TV lights to see: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are for real. Not Dallas - Tampa Bay.

Playoffs Could Be in Tampa Bay's Immediate Future

Yes, the team is in the thick of the hunt for a Wild Card spot in the NFC playoffs. Should they qualify for it by the end of the season, when they have to play Carolina in week 17 which won't help, they still wouldn't face Carolina immediately. They'd have to actually win a playoff game first, with Carolina likely on a bye.

If the Bucs DO win their initial game, the odds are they may not be playing Carolina unless or until they get to the NFC Championship Game. VERY tall order for a young team, but isn't completely out of the question. The NFL doesn't like to match-up teams that are from the same division if they can help it, and with the Atlanta Slobbergoats er Falcons I mean being 6-4, they have the same chance as the 5-5 Bucs to be second in the NFC South. The reason? The Slobbergoats I mean Falcons have to play Carolina twice yet while the Bucs lost once to the Panthers in September.

What About the Arizona Cardinals?

They're clearly the second-best team in the NFC...at least, to me they are. Minnesota is up there close, but doesn't have the talent on both sides of the ball that the Cards have. What Minnesota has that most of the others lack, however, is Adrian "All Day" Peterson. If they'd actually run him 25 times a game instead of half that, they could keep any given game close and pull it out at the end.

The Cardinals have no such dominant runner. Instead, they have a highly developed passing game with a couple of speedsters in the backfield: Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson of long-ago "CJ2K" fame. The duo has put up enough rushing yardage to force the defenses they face to honor it, but remain primarily a passing team.

With a very mature and talented Carson Palmer calling the signals and likely future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald catching the ball, they have some skill-position players to impact any given contest from the offensive side. Add in guys like John Brown and Michael Floyd, and you've got the NFL's #1 offense in points scored and in passing yardage. They are Carolina's most dangerous prospective playoff foe in the NFC.

Buccaneers Could be Carolina's Nemesis for 2015 Yet

While it's improbable that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could change the course of Carolina's season, the Panthers are still clearly in the driver's seat. If the Panthers don't stumble against anyone else, the outcome of the week 17 match-up against the Bucs may not matter in the slightest since Carolina currently enjoys a two-game lead for the top seed in the NFC. Arizona would have to win-out while the Panthers lose two ball games for it even to be a consideration, and the Panthers could still hold the tiebreaker over the Cardinals. 

There are two ways of looking at playing the Bucs both very early as we have and very late as we will. We'll see first-hand just how much rookie Jameis Winston has improved since their first meeting, if his 5-TD performance the same week as Cam Newton had his isn't enough to let people know. If a third (playoff) meeting is to be in order, Carolina would have plenty of knowledge on the guy and adjust their game plan accordingly.

The thing that bothers me the most is that "third meeting." As I pointed out, it likely won't happen. If it does, it will necessarily mean that the Bucs have not only vastly improved, but are an extremely dangerous team. It would mean they'd have already beaten two playoff teams as this particular match-up likely wouldn't happen until the NFC Championship Game. If that's the case, they'd certainly be there on merit and ANY playoff team is worthy of being taken seriously. 

The Bucs are currently second in the NFL in rushing yards with Seattle being first and the Panthers being 4th. Doug Martin has had a resurgence in his young career as their running game takes some pressure off Winston. Anyone with a running game naturally helps the passing game due to the defense's awareness of the ability to run the ball. 

Even assuming the Bucs can and will make the playoffs and ultimately stand in the way of Carolina making it to the Super Bowl, given Carolina's laser-like focus on the one game at a time/one quarter at a time, any chances the Bucs might have for an upset win are small.

What I'm saying is that aside from Arizona, Tampa Bay might be the most dangerous team in the NFC to the Panthers' Super Bowl hopes. The Panthers should beat Atlanta twice as well as win at New Orleans, but those won't be cakewalks, either.

Losing Record for NFC South Winner in 2014 a Blessing

The Panthers know they control their own destiny and can keep focused on their next opponent - the same thing that has carried them to an eleven-for-eleven record - and they are the team least likely to mess up and be caught looking ahead. One need only look to their four-game winning streak to eek out an unlikely NFC South crown last season with an even less likely 7-8-1 record. They've proven they have the coaching staff to hunker down and keep the team focused during crunch time, and that's exactly what's going to help carry the team through the 2015 season...and beyond.

With the Bucs being a .500 team but probably being the team with as much upward momentum as anyone in the Conference, Tampa Bay would well be the team that the Carolina Panthers focus on more than anyone especially if it comes down to that third contest in January.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye