The Carolina Panthers were the overwhelming favorites to win the NFC South and Tampa Bay was considered the up and coming team in the division with Atlanta the consensus to land in the cellar.
That was prior to the season, but as has happened so many times the Buccaneers have a way of sending prognosticators into the back room to get an eraser.
Heading into the second quarter of the NFL season, the 1-3 Panthers and Buccaneers will meet Monday night with the loser getting cemented into the division cellar, perhaps too deep to climb out from under.
So what happened?
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Mother nature intervened.
She rained down turnovers on these two franchises, and they are the great equalizer in the NFL. Both the Bucs and Panthers are beset by them and don’t have the defense to overcome them.
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is under siege and has committed 10 turnovers. Last week with his receivers unable to get open and his offensive line not protecting him, Winston was sacked five times. Denver was credited with six quarterback hits and 14 pressures, which seemed to cause the quarterback to misfire when he wasn’t under pressure.
But this matchup is more than about turnovers. It’s about two franchises that are miles apart though they share disappointing records at the moment. Carolina and Tampa Bay were once virtually one and the same. But the Panthers moved forward and left the Bucs treading water.
The Panthers organization showed patience and belief in head coach Ron Rivera, who was on the hot seat in his third year while the last two Bucs head coaches never made it to a third year. Rivera was allowed to established his system, which stressed believing in the head coach. If you were not on board, the Panthers shipped you out, hey, there is a lot at stake here.
“Just making sure everybody understood that I have a vision and this is our vision as we’re going forward,” he said. “We needed people to fall in line. I think some of the things that helped us was finding those guys that wanted to be here and those that didn’t, we got rid of.”
You make mistakes, letting cornerback Josh Norman leave has turned out bad for now. But Panthers heralded linebacker Luke Kuechly said players have to be behind the coaching staff.
“We have guys that buy in and want to be successful and want to work hard, and listen and do what they are coached to do,” Kuechly said. “And all of our coordinators and other coaches do a great job of kind of staying positive, but at the same time telling us what we need to hear.”
Rivera was 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two years and started 2013 at 1-3, but ownership stuck with him and the Panthers went 12-4. Last season they were 17-1 and went to the Super Bowl. The last two Bucs coaches prior to Koetter, Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith, only got two years.
Both teams are beset by injuries and have hurt themselves by giving away the football. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been declared out of Monday’s game with a concussion, but his back up Derek Anderson beat the Bucs twice in 2014 and the Bucs have a way of making Sunday afternoon heroes out of backup quarterbacks.
History has proven you can’t count on winning close games every year like the Panthers did in 2015 — coming out on top in seven of eight games decided by one score.
The Panthers have 10 giveaways, which is more than half of last year’s season total and opponents have scored 37 points off them, the third most in the NFL. The Bucs have 11 giveaways and opponents have scored a league high 51 points off them. They have scored 13 points on their take-aways, which makes for a disappointing -38 ratio. They rank 31st out of 32 teams in points allowed and in turnovers.
The biggest disappointment for the Bucs was how they let down after winning their season opener against Atlanta with reports of players not giving their best at practice in the week following the game. Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith is trying to instill the right belief into this unit, but it hasn’t been easy with all the injuries.
“We’ve got to learn that the next play is the most important play. We can’t dwell on the previous snap,” Mike Smith said. “We have not done a good job of sudden change situations and good defenses show the backbone to come out and stop them in those type of situations.”
Smith said there is a right time to be aggressive and a right time to sit back and make sure the opponent is going to throw in front of you. It’s something his guys are learning.
“I think overall as a unit we need to be more in tune to when we can be aggressive and challenge. That’s the most important thing for us in the secondary right now,” Smith says.
Not having injured Doug Martin at running back because of a hamstring injury has probably hurt Winston more than anything, which supports the argument Martin is the most valuable player offensive player on the Bucs.
Who: Tampa Bay (1-3) at Carolina (1-3)
When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.