The Carolina Panthers were gliding along a month ago just waiting for late-season showdowns with the New Orleans Saints, but now they’ll be trying to end a three-game losing streak on Sunday in Tampa.
The Panthers have fallen to 6-5 but still have four games remaining against NFC South opponents, starting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Just stick together,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of his message. “We still have five games left to go. We control it. Go out and play. You have to play to win.”
A win Sunday would give Carolina a season sweep of the Buccaneers (4-7).
“We need one win,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. “Let’s just start with one win. Everybody who is looking at the calendar and saying, ‘We can beat this team. We can beat that team. We play them at home.’ We need one win and we can start with that.”
As if things hadn’t nose-dived enough, last week’s 30-27 loss to Seattle marked the end of Carolina’s 10-game home winning streak that dated to last season.
“You’re 6-2 and now you’re 6-5,” Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said. “I don’t know if that’s how anybody saw it going. … Five games left, just have to try and go get one.”
The offensive snags seem isolated. Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey are putting up notable numbers on a regular basis, yet the final output doesn’t necessarily correspond with that.
“Losing makes it sting,” Rivera said. “Missed opportunities to make plays.”
Perhaps there are some good vibes in playing Tampa Bay. The Panthers posted a season-high point total in the 42-28 victory on Nov. 3.
“We can’t fool ourselves,” Newton said. “We need to seize the moment better than we are.”
Newton’s counterpart, Jameis Winston, came in last week and played a remarkably clean game in a 27-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Returning from a three-game benching, Winston went 29 of 38 for 312 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Jameis made good decisions with the football,” Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said. “Played a clean game. We had a good result. We win the turnover margin. We get two takeaways. We don’t turn it over.”
Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David, who missed the last two games with a sprained MCL in his right knee, returned to practice on Wednesday and could play against the Panthers.
“The first thing he said to me was that I needed to tell the trainers that he didn’t need to wear the knee brace,” Koetter said. “I said, ‘That’s probably something for you to tell them and not me.’ But it was great having him back out there today. Lavonte is one of the most respected players on our team and a team captain.
“That’s a big boost to everybody’s morale out there.”