Carolina Panthers (6-5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7)
The Panthers, once 6-2, are losers of 3 straight, but they could have easily won each of their past two games. The Panthers lost by 1 in Detroit two weeks ago, in a game in which they missed a field goal, an extra point, and a 2-point conversation late when they didn’t trust their kicking unit to tie the game. Last week, they lost by a field goal at home to the Seahawks, but outgained the Seahawks by 1.9 yards per play in a game in which the Panthers missed another field goal, threw a red zone interception, failed on a 4th down, and allowed the Seahawks to go 2 for 2 on 4th downs.
The Panthers won the first down rate battle in both games, +5.98% in Detroit and +11.53% against Seattle. On the season, they have a first down rate differential of +2.11%, 12th in the NFL, and that number is significantly better if you ignore their blowout loss in Pittsburgh, in game in which the Panthers were caught off guard by a strong team on the road on a short week. The Panthers are just 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but still are 6-5, as a result of 4 wins by more than a touchdown. They could easily be 7-4 or 8-3 right now, in which case this line would likely be higher than 3.5 in Tampa Bay.
While the Panthers are a solid team, the Buccaneers are a mediocre bunch. Their offense has moved the ball well, thanks in large part to arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL. They have picked up first downs at a 42.90% rate (4th in the NFL) and they lead the league with 3,914 passing yards (on pace for an NFL record 5,693 on the season). However, they’ve also started two historically turnover prone quarterbacks this season in Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston and have the most giveaways in the league with 29.
Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and the Buccaneers are unlikely to continue losing the turnover battle at the rate they have been (a league worst -21 through 11 games), but the Buccaneers have two gunslinging quarterbacks that take risks downfield, a style of play that lends itself to a lot of turnovers. It’s part of why they’ve gotten so many yards through the air this season, but there are also obvious downsides.
The Buccaneers have also been hurt significantly by the injury bug. Their receiving corps is one of the best in the NFL at full strength, but they’re missing both tight end OJ Howard and wide receiver DeSean Jackson with injury, so they’re far from at full strength. They are also expected to be without starting right tackle Demar Dotson. Defensively they’re getting healthier, with safety Justin Evans and linebacker Lavonte David due back this week, after defensive end Vinny Curry returned last week, but they’re still without linebacker Kwon Alexander and they could be down their top-3 cornerbacks with injury. Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart have already been ruled out, while Brent Grimes is highly questionable after sitting out Friday’s practice.
Their defense has been horrible all season, ranking 31st in first down rate allowed at 42.18%, but they’re even worse when they’re missing starters. Even at full strength, their offense just isn’t quite good enough to keep up with what their defense is allowing most weeks, especially if the offense commits several turnovers. The Buccaneers rank 17th in first down rate differential on the year at +0.72%, but they’re not nearly as good as that suggests right now.
The Buccaneers are also in a tough spot, with the Saints coming to town next week. Teams are 22-44 ATS since 2014 before being home favorites of 7 or more (Tampa Bay is +11 on the early line), as big upcoming home games tend to be a distraction. With back-to-back tough home games, the Buccaneers might not be as focused this week as they need to be to pull an upset over a significantly more talented opponent. There’s not quite enough here for the Panthers to be worth betting, but I’d change my mind if this line dropped down to 3 before gametime.
Update: Carolina -3 has popped up in some places, so, as I said I would, I’m making this is a medium confidence pick.
Carolina Panthers 30 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24
Pick against the spread: Carolina -3