TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers don’t have to sort through a bunch of potential tiebreaker scenarios to know what they need to do to win the NFC South and host a first-round playoff game.
Beat the Panthers today at Raymond James Stadium, and Tom Brady and the first-place Bucs (7-8) will repeat as division champions and earn a postseason berth for the third consecutive year regardless of what happens in the final week of the regular season.
Carolina (6-9), which has won four of its past six games to play its way back into contention after firing its coach and trading its best player, can claim its first NFC South title by closing with victories over Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
“We know what this game entails,” Panther Coach Steve Wilks said. “There is no reason to talk about it.”
“We understand what the game means. Trying to win a division is not easy,” Bucs Coach Todd Bowles echoed.
“They need it and we need it, so it’s essentially a playoff game,” Bowles added. “Our playoff games started last Sunday when we won [in overtime at Arizona].”
Carolina, which is 5-5 under Wilks, fired coach Matt Rhule after Week 5 and traded star running back Christian McCaffrey to San Francisco a few days before shutting down Brady and Tampa Bay’s sputtering offense 21-3 at home on Oct. 23.
The Panthers entered this week tied with New Orleans for second in the division, one game behind the Bucs.
Tampa Bay holds the advantage in any tiebreaker situation involving the Saints (6-9), who lost both meetings between the division rivals this season.
“I’m not in Tom Brady’s head, but he definitely remembers this game,” Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “We both know what’s on the line.”
Brady has won an NFL-record 18 division titles, all but one of them during a historic 20-year run with the New England Patriots.
The Bucs are trying to win consecutive division championships for the first time in franchise history.
“The important part is it’s something that’s earned. There’s nothing given. There’s nothing you really take for granted,” Brady said of having another opportunity to clinch a playoff berth.
“Every year is something different. I think obviously this year … we’ve dealt with some injuries, a lot of different lineup changes, some tough games, a lot of tough calls, close calls,” the 45-year-old quarterback added. “But we have an opportunity now to do something really positive. … It’s a big challenge. It’s a great opportunity. You don’t take it for granted.”
The Panthers are coming off a record-breaking offensive performance last week against the Detroit Lions, racking up a franchise-record 570 yards, including a whopping 320 on the ground.
D’Onta Foreman paced the ground attack with 165 yards rushing and a touchdown, while Chuba Hubbard ran for 125 yards. Those totals were career highs for both players. The Panthers’ offensive line completely dominated the line of scrimmage, freeing the backs for seven runs of 20 yards or more and an average of 7.4 yards per carry.
“That’s been the key to our success this season,” Foreman said. “When we’ve run the ball well, we’ve won games. When we haven’t, we’ve lost.”
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