After all, once word broke last week that the team was still some 9,000 tickets short of reaching the 85 percent threshold needed to avoid a blackout, it seemed all but inevitable that fans would be left without Bucs football on the television once again.
Nevertheless, Tampa Bay finds themselves facing off against division foe Carolina in a matchup that has almost as many star-caliber players as it does intriguing plotlines.
Can the Bucs' defense finally slow down Cam Newton and Carolina's rushing attack? Will the Bucs have any success rushing the ball on offense? Will Josh Freeman begin his resurgence? Can Newton avoid the dreaded 'sophomore slump'? How will Vincent Jackson perform in his first game with the Bucs? What about the rookies, how will Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David fare in their first professional contest?
And while questions will undoubtedly remain post-game, the Buccaneers have to show their fledgling fanbase that they are in fact an improved team with real aspirations of contending for something other than a top-10 draft pick next April.
Winning cures all.
Oddly enough, winning against Carolina has been nearly as elusive as selling out Raymond James Stadium, as the Panthers have taken four of the previous six games in this series, including both games by considerable margins in 2011.
Furthermore, the Bucs have lost six of the last 10 games to the Panthers dating back to 2007.
That trend has to reverse, starting this weekend. And it can be done, but it will take a considerable effort by all involved to see it through.
Including the 50-or-so thousand fans in attendance. Their role is vital as well.
The Panthers win if...
They can get pressure on Freeman and force him to think on the run, an area he has shown to be susceptible to forcing throws and committing turnovers.
Freeman has four career starts against Carolina, winning two and losing two. In his two wins (both in 2010), Freeman threw four touchdowns and zero interceptions combined. In the two losses, he threw just one touchdown to go along with six interceptions combined.
The Bucs are sure to combat this by giving the Panthers a steady dose of the above-mentioned Martin and LeGarrette Blount, but even still, look for Carolina to make Freeman show he is capable of beating them.
The Bucs win if...
They dominate the line of scrimmage. In their two meetings last season, the Panthers ran for an average of 216.5 yards per contest, while in comparison, the Bucs managed just 68.5 yards per game.
With those numbers in mind, it should come as little surprise that the Bucs allowed a league-worst 156.1 rushing yards per game last year while simultaneously finishing 30th-overall in rushing offense at 91.1 yards per game.
The Bucs invested in Martin and All-Pro guard Carl Nicks with the intentions of becoming a run-first team, so if they are able to open running lanes and control the line of scrimmage, it not only shortens the game on both sides of the ball for Tampa Bay, but it alleviates the pressure from Freeman to have to put the game on his shoulders.
Wild card of the game...
Linebacker performance. With both teams expected to establish the ground game on offense, the play of the linebackers on both sides becomes that much more important.
While the defensive lines will certainly play a vital role in slowing down and stopping the initial play, the linebackers must stop those runs that break through from becoming highlight reel material. Solid tackling and sound fundamentals will be tested.
While the anticipation for a better season is a legitimate reason to be excited in Tampa Bay, until the Bucs are able to show that they can stop any opposing running attack—let alone Carolina's trio—I cannot in good conscience expect the outcome to differ all that much from previous meetings.
The Bucs will keep this game closer than the two blowouts they endured at the hands of Carolina last season, but in the end, they'll come up just short. Carolina 23, Tampa Bay 17
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