NFL: Win over Panthers would give Bucs NFC South title

Not much has come easy for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.

But now with just two weeks to play in the regular season, it could become clear and convenient for quarterback Tom Brady and his teammates.

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If they win against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon in Tampa, Fla., they’ll capture the NFC South title and secure a home playoff game.

“This is why I came here,” Buccaneers receiver Russell Gage Jr. said. “These are the games I want to be in. This is big for me.”

The Buccaneers (7-8) have won just two of their last five games. They’ll be trying for back-to-back victories for just the third time.

The Panthers (6-9) can claim the NFC South title by winning at Tampa Bay and following that by winning next week at New Orleans. They’re 5-5 under interim coach Steve Wilks.

“This game is important,” Wilks said. “It’s important because it’s the next one.”

Carolina emerged in playoff contention by winning three of its last four games. The most recent road outing resulted in a 30-24 victory at Seattle for the Panthers’ only road win.

“I always feel like teams that play great this time of the year are teams still emphasizing and working on fundamentals,” Wilks said.

Brady has been steady if not spectacular, throwing for 4,178 yards and 21 touchdowns.

That puts Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold well off that pace with 759 passing yards and four touchdowns. The key, though, is that Darnold hasn’t thrown an interception in his limited work, while Brady has been picked off nine times.

The Panthers have received huge boosts from their rushing attack at times. That includes running back D’Onta Foreman’s career-high 165 rushing yards last week against the Detroit Lions.

The Buccaneers struggled mightily in an Oct. 23 loss at Carolina, which won 21-3. That’s one of three games when Tampa Bay failed to reach a double-figure point total.

“We know what type of game is going to be, playing them earlier in the season how that went,” Buccaneers offensive tackle Tristian Wirfs said. “We’ve got to set the tone early.”

There could be a boost for the Buccaneers if center Ryan Jensen is on the field. On Wednesday, the team designated him to return from injured reserve.

The Panthers seem relatively healthy other than the absence of cornerback Jaycee Horn, who underwent wrist surgery this week. That resulted in the decision to sign former standout cornerback Josh Norman — who could be used as a backup at Tampa Bay — to the practice squad with the possibility of activating him for the game.

Keith Taylor and CJ Henderson will be Carolina’s starting cornerbacks.

“I’m excited about him moving forward, so we’ll see at the end of the week,” Wilks said of Norman. “He’s definitely not in game shape. But he’s definitely in shape the way he can move. … You have to put a cap on the number of plays he can possibly play.”

The Buccaneers were without cornerback Carlton Davis III (shoulder) for Wednesday’s practice.

Carolina is 12-9 all-time at Tampa Bay.

–Field Level Media

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