Five fearless predictions for Sunday’s Carolina Panthers game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
1. Panthers’ interception barrage will continue.
After going the first 12 games without an interception, second-year corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley combined for four (two apiece) in victories over Minnesota and Green Bay. Thieves Ave. will continue to be open against Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, who has thrown nine interceptions in five career games vs. Carolina. It won’t necessarily be Bradberry and Worley again, but the Panthers will get two more interceptions vs. Famous Jameis.
2. Cameron Brate will catch four passes.
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Because who else – besides Mike Evans and Adam Humphries – is Winston going to throw to? Rookie tight end O.J. Howard and speedy wideout DeSean Jackson are both out with injuries. Meanwhile, Brate, the fourth-year tight end, is coming off a four-catch game at Atlanta and had four receptions in the first meeting vs. Carolina. The Panthers couldn’t cover Packers tight end Richard Rodgers Jr. late in last week’s victory.
3. Cam Newton will not be sacked.
Newton dropped back to pass at least 34 times at Tampa Bay in Week 8 (32 pass attempts, two scrambles) and was not hit once – let alone sacked. The Bucs are last in the league with 18 sacks and are threatening to finish with a franchise low (19, in 1986). Even with Amini Silatolu filling in for right guard Trai Turner (concussion) for the second game in a row, Newton will enjoy a clean pocket.
4. Julius Peppers will retake the sack lead.
Peppers and fellow edge rusher Mario Addison have been battling for the team lead in sacks all season, and enter Sunday’s game tied with 10 apiece. But Peppers should have an advantage working against second-string right tackle Caleb Benenoch, who will be making just his fifth career start. Peppers has played a lot since Charles Johnson was suspended, so look for the Panthers to substitute more liberally to keep him fresh for the postseason.
5. Two more field goals for Graham Gano.
Gano, who is set to play in his first Pro Bowl, leads the NFL in field goal accuracy, having missed only once in 26 tries. Gano is on pace to set the Panthers’ single-season record for field goal percentage and he’ll do nothing to hurt his chances against the Bucs. They won’t be pressure kicks, either. Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey will help the Panthers build a big early lead and this one shouldn’t ever get too close. Panthers 34, Bucs 20.
Bucs at Panthers
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Sunday, 1 p.m.
FOX (Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber, Kristina Pink)