CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Potential distractions keep piling up for the Carolina Panthers, but they also can focus on reaching the playoffs.
A victory Sunday afternoon in the home finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would clinch a playoff spot and keep the Panthers in contention for the NFC South title.
“We still need some things to work out in our favor, but if those things happen we are still going to take care of business,” Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said.
The Panthers (10-4) won six of their last seven games and remain tied for the divisional lead with the New Orleans Saints.
The Buccaneers (4-10) are out of playoff contention and are beat up after losing several players during a loss to Atlanta on Monday.
The Carolina franchise has been embroiled in off-field news, with owner Jerry Richardson the focus of an NFL investigation amid allegations of workplace misconduct. And since the last game, Richardson announced he plans to sell the team at season’s end.
Then came word from the NFL that veteran linebacker Thomas Davis has been handed a two-game suspension for a hit in last week against the Green Bay Packers.
But on the field, the Panthers have been mostly strong for two months. That adds to the pressure as well.
“I think there’s going to be some pressure to get another (victory),” Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “Any time you get to 10 (victories), that’s a good mark for a team but we’ve got a few more games and hopefully we can keep moving forward.”
It’s not so encouraging for the Buccaneers, who are coming off Monday night’s 24-21 home loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
“So many unfortunate things have been happening,” Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston said. “We’ve got to keep digging and keep working. … It has been an unfortunate year, but all we can do is grab our lunch pail and keep working. We have got to find a way. It’s how you bounce back. It’s how you persevere.”
The Panthers defeated the Buccaneers 17-3 on Oct. 29 in Tampa. Winston was intercepted twice and sacked three times in that game.
The Buccaneers won’t be at full strength after a slew of injuries Monday night. Linebacker Adarius Glanton and right guard J.R. Sweezy have been lost for the season with leg injuries while tight end O.J. Howard (ankle) and safety Justin Evans (ankle) joined them on injured reserve.
Tampa Bay suffered a total of 10 injuries on Monday, and is so beat up that a short week prior to the trip to Carolina it could be especially detrimental.
“There will be a price to pay for that here this week,” Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said.
The Panthers are thin at linebacker with Davis unavailable and Shaq Thompson missing the past two games with a foot injury. Thompson could be back this week. David Mayo filled in during his absence and now might be called on to shift into Davis’ spot.
On offense, Newton produced his second game of the season with four touchdown throws against Green Bay.
“He has done the things we asked and he has been solid,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “As we continue to go forward, this is the type of energy we need from our quarterback and from our key players.”
For Tampa Bay, Winston has made some recent strides that have the Buccaneers encouraged.
“He’s always working on his body and his film study,” Koetter said. “The way he threw the ball (Monday night), he threw effortlessly and with touch.”
Tampa Bay’s schedule calls for the final three games (beginning with that loss to Atlanta) against the other three NFC South teams, so the Buccaneers can influence the pecking order at the top.
Koetter said it’s important to maintain a serious approach.
“These aren’t practice games,” he said. “These are real games and we’re trying to win.”
The Buccaneers are stuck in a four-game losing streak and are 2-6 in games decided by six points or less.
“You’ve got to win those one-score games,” Koetter said. “We’ve just got to come out on the other end of that. … Frustrated that they’re not close wins. You play to win.”
Winston said the grind of the season is tougher when the results aren’t what the Buccaneers were aiming for. Now, there’s a chance for a bit of an uplifting finish.
“I just want to win,” Winston said. “I can’t let those guys down. I’ve got to compete. … Every opportunity we have to build this team matters.”
The best scenario for the Panthers would be to defeat the Buccaneers on Sunday, but hope Tampa Bay leaves in a determined mindset to upset New Orleans the following week.
Both teams are coming off back-to-back games with the same scores. Carolina defeated Minnesota and Green Bay by 31-24 counts, while Tampa Bay lost to Detroit and Atlanta by 24-21 scores.
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