TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers don’t have to sort through a bunch of potential tiebreaker scenarios to know what they need to do to win the NFC South and host a first-round playoff game.
Beat the Panthers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, and Tom Brady and the first-place Bucs (7-8) will repeat as division champions and earn a postseason berth for the third straight year regardless of what happens in the final week of the regular season.
Carolina (6-9), which has won four of its past six games to play its way back into contention after firing its coach and trading its best player, can claim its first NFC South title by closing with victories over Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
"We know what this game entails,” Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks said. “There is no reason to talk about it.”
“We understand what the game means. Trying to win a division is not easy,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles echoed.
“They need it and we need it, so it’s essentially a playoff game,” Bowles added. “Our playoff games started last Sunday when we won (in overtime at Arizona), so this Sunday will be the same.”
Carolina, which is 5-5 under Wilks, fired coach Matt Rhule after Week 5 and traded star running back Christian McCaffrey to San Francisco a few days before shutting down Brady and Tampa Bay's sputtering offense 21-3 at home on Oct. 23.
The Panthers entered this week tied with New Orleans for second in the division, one game behind the Bucs.
Tampa Bay holds the advantage in any tiebreaker situation involving the Saints (6-9), who lost both meetings between the division rivals this season.
“I’m not in Tom Brady’s head, but he definitely remembers this game,” Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “We both know what’s on the line.”
Brady has won an NFL-record 18 division titles, all but one of them during a historic 20-year run with the New England Patriots.
The Bucs are trying to win consecutive division championships for the first time in franchise history.
“The important part is it’s something that's earned. There’s nothing given. There’s nothing you really take for granted,” Brady said of having another opportunity to clinch a playoff berth.
“Every year is something different. I think obviously this year ... we’ve dealt with some injuries, a lot of different lineup changes, some tough games, a lot of tough calls, close calls,” the 45-year-old quarterback added. “But we have an opportunity now to do something really positive. ... It’s a big challenge. It’s a great opportunity. You don’t take it for granted.”
RUN, RUN, RUN
The Panthers are coming off a record-breaking offensive performance last week against the Detroit Lions, racking up a franchise-record 570 yards, including a whopping 320 on the ground.
D’Onta Foreman paced the ground attack with 165 yards rushing and a touchdown, while Chuba Hubbard ran for 125 yards. Those totals were career highs for both players. The Panthers' offensive line completely dominated the line of scrimmage, freeing the backs for seven runs of 20 yards or more and an average of 7.4 yards per carry.
“That’s been the key to our success this season,” Foreman said. “When we’ve run the ball well, we’ve won games. When we haven’t, we’ve lost.”
RING OF HONOR
Former Bucs coach Bruce Arians, who helped recruit Brady to Tampa Bay before leading the Bucs to a Super Bowl title two years ago, will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor on Sunday.
Brady said he’s happy for the retired coach, noting Arians was “a big reason why I came here.”
“He’s very deserving. He’s had an amazing coaching life and journey,” Brady said. “He’s been around some great players, some great coaches. He’s really built a winning foundation here, which is pretty spectacular.”
The Panthers lost Donte Jackson to a season-ending torn Achilles tendon earlier this season and now their other starting cornerback, Jaycee Horn, is coming off surgery this week for a broken wrist. With Horn out, C.J. Henderson and Keith Taylor will start at cornerback against the Bucs.
In the meantime, the Panthers have added a familiar face in veteran Josh Norman, giving them some experience and attitude in the secondary. The 35-year-old Norman was an All-Pro for the Panthers when they went to the Super Bowl in 2015. Wilks was his position coach that season.
Wilks believes Norman, who hasn’t played this year, could step in a play as a backup to Taylor this week if needed.
PINEIRO ON A ROLL
The Panthers have reason to be confident if the game comes down a field goal.
Eddy Pineiro has been fabulous for the Panthers since missing an extra point at the end of regulation and a field goal in overtime in a midseason loss to Atlanta, making his last 17 field goal attempts.
Pineiro has made 93.9% of his field goal attempts this season, which is third best in the NFL.
Tampa Bay’s Ryan Succop has made 85.3% of his attempts.
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
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Fred Goodall, The Associated Press