PANTHERS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Sam Darnold will get another start and a chance to prove himself as the franchise turns its attention to next season. Darnold is under contract for more than $18 million in 2022 so coach Matt Rhule needs to decide if Darnold is his guy or if the franchise should move on and find yet another quarterback.
BUCCANEERS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Tom Brady leads the NFL in completions (456), passing attempts (682), passing yards (4,990) and touchdown passes (40) entering the final week of the regular season. Since 1991, Drew Brees (2008) and Peyton Manning (2013) are the only players who have led the league in all four categories. The seven-time Super Bowl winner is 10 yards away from joining Brees as the only QBs with two of more seasons with 5,000 yards-plus passing.
KEY MATCHUP: Bucs’ pass rush vs. Panthers’ offensive line: Carolina’s offensive line has been abysmal, allowing seven sacks in each of the last two games and 18 sacks over the past three games. Only three teams have allowed more sacks this season than Carolina, which has surrendered 50. Tampa Bay’s defense, led by Shaquil Barrett, enters the game fifth in the league with 45 QB sacks. Expect some all-out blitzes from the Bucs.
KEY INJURIES: The Panthers will get a number of players back this week from the COVID-19 reserve list, including OLB Haason Reddick, the team’s leader in sacks (12). However, the team this week placed starting left tackle Cam Erving (foot) and wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. (foot) on injured reserve, so they are done for the season. Rookie Brady Christensen will make his second straight start at left tackle. … Barrett (knee), LB Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder), RB Ronald Jones and C Ryan Jensen (shoulder) were all on the injury report and did not participate in a walk-through practice Wednesday, when the team began preparation for the Panthers. WR Mike Evans (hamstring) and CB Richard Sherman (Achilles tendon) were listed as limited participants.
SERIES NOTES: The Bucs have won three in a row against the Panthers, including a 32-6 victory two weeks ago that clinched Tampa Bay’s first NFC South title since 2007. … Evans has 67 receptions for 904 yards and five TDs in 14 career games against the Panthers.
STATS AND STUFF: The Panthers have lost six straight games and 11 of their last 13 overall. … As things stand now, the Panthers have the No. 6 pick in next year’s NFL draft, but will have a chance to move up with a loss on Sunday. … Darnold is 4-6 as the team’s starting quarterback. QB Cam Newton is expected to be active in a reserve role. … RB Chuba Hubbard is one of four rookies with 500 or more yards rushing and five TDs this season. Najee Harris, Elijah Mitchell and Rhamondre Stevenson are the others. … WR D.J. Moore had eight catches for 120 yards in his last road game at Tampa Bay. Moore needs two receptions to surpass his career high of 87. … DE Brian Burns has a sack in two of his last three road games. … Evans is the only player in NFL history to begin a career with seven consecutive seasons with 1,000-plus yards receiving. He enters Sunday’s finale 54 yards shy of extending the record to eight straight seasons. … Brady is coming off the 13th 400-yard passing performance of his career, tied with Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the third most in league history. Brees (16) and Manning (14) are the only players with more. … With WR Antonio Brown no longer a Buc after leaving the sideline in the middle of last week’s game and being released, backup Cyril Grayson’s playing time figures to increase. He had a career-high six receptions in last week’s come-from-behind win over the Jets, including the winning TD with 15 seconds remaining. … TE Rob Gronkowski had the 31st 100-yard receiving game of his career last week, tied with Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez for the most by a tight end.