The Tampa Bay Buccaneer Week 18 matchup against the Carolina Panthers is must-see television. Not so much because of what is on the field, but what is not on the field. This week has seen one of the biggest soap opera storylines the NFL has had in a very long time.
After former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown stripped off half his clothing and jogged off the field Sunday, the story has only got crazier. Brown and Bucs head coach Bruce Arians have released different versions of what happened. Brown accused the organization of covering up the truth. It's been quite the sideshow. That makes it a bit more difficult for a team to stay focused on winning back to back Super Bowl championships.
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The Buccaneers are currently the #3 seed in the NFC. They already have the division locked up, and can finish as high as #2 and low as #4.
Here are my 4 bold predictions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Week 18 matchup against the Carolina Panthers.
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Buccaneers Week 18 Predictions vs. Carolina Panthers
4. Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Le'Veon Bell have a big impact
A few weeks ago, the Buccaneers placed their starting running back, Leonard Fournette, on injured reserve. He suffered a hamstring strain in the shutout loss to the New Orleans Saints. He is expected to return for the postseason but is not available this week. Backup tailback, Ronald Jones II, was injured last week vs. the New York Jets. He is yet to practice this week and is listed as questionable. I would be surprised to see him suit up Sunday.
That leaves Ke'Shawn Vaughn and newly signed Le'Veon Bell as active running backs. Vaughn rushed eight times for 31 yards last week and will lead the team in carries this week.
For more insight on the Buccaneers' Week 18 matchup against the Panthers, listen below:
The Panthers secondary has been one of the league's best all year. So, it makes sense that Tampa Bay keeps the ball on the ground for much of the game. Vaughn should handle most of those reps and already showed the Panthers what he is capable of.
KE’SHAWN VAUGHN TO THE HOUSE 🐍pic.twitter.com/Ktgvmy3PSF
— The Dore Report (@dore_report) December 26, 2021
Two weeks ago, Vaughn ripped off a 55-yard touchdown run against them. But we all know that Tom Brady needs a running back he can dump passes off to.
Le'Veon Bell is going to be that guy. He is on his 3rd team this year, and despite struggling to rush the ball, he still has receiving chops. Last week, he caught three passes for 30 yards. I think this week he doubles that production.
3. Buccaneers sack combo of Sam Darnold/Cam Newton 4+ times
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule reportedly hinted at continuing to use a rotation at quarterback between Sam Darnold and Cam Newton. Honestly, it does not matter who is back there for Carolina. Their offensive line is a mess and both guys will be sitting ducks back there.
Over the last three games, the Panthers have allowed 18 sacks. That is really, really bad.
The Buccaneers are 5th in the NFL with 45 sacks this season. Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh have 16 combined and should feast on Sunday.
The only time the Panthers offense has looked good this season was when they were able to establish a running game. Everyone knows, you cannot run against Tampa Bay. So, whoever is under center for Carolina will be dropping back quite often. That's a recipe for disaster.
2. Mike Evans makes history, extending his own record
Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans enters Week 18 with 946 receiving yards. He is 54 yards shy of 1,000. That would be his 8th straight season to start his career with 1,000 yards. He already owns the record at seven straight seasons to start a career. He broke the previous record of six held by Randy Moss.
I don't think it will be easy, nor do I think will he get much more than 54 yards. On Thursday, the Panthers secondary took a big blow as Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore entered the league's COVID-19 reserve list.
The Panthers have added cornerback Stephon Gilmore and WR Shi Smith to the reserve/COVID list.
They join DE Yetur Gross-Matos, who was added yesterday.
— Jonathan M Alexander (@jonmalexander) January 6, 2022
Gilmore has been one of the league's best cover corners for a number of years. That will help Evans tremendously as he is also not at 100%.
1. Cyril Grayson, Tyler Johnson fill some big shoes
One of the biggest questions for Tampa Bay is who will step up with Antonio Brown no longer on the team. Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin tore his ACL in the same shutout loss to the Saints earlier this year. He is out for the rest of the season. With the division already locked up, and Evans not at 100%, it wouldnt make sense for Evans to play a full complement of snaps.
That will open the door for Cyril Grayson and Tyler Johnson.
Grayson played the hero last week. With the Bucs trailing 24-20 and under two minutes remaining and no timeouts, Brady led Tampa on a 93-yard drive. It ended on a 33-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Cyril Grayson.
— SportsGrid (@SportsGrid) January 2, 2022
We know that Tom Brady is not looking to rest or slow down entering the playoffs. For 20 years in New England, he and Bill Belichick played balls to the walls entering the postseason. After losing an integral weapon like Brown, Brady is going to want to get as many reps and rhythm with his new receivers as possible.
I would be very surprised if Grayson, Johnson and even possibly Scotty Miller did not have big days Sunday.