Wait a minute, they are still playing a football game Sunday?
After one of the most tumultuous weeks in Carolina Panthers history, you would be forgiven if you had forgotten. Team owner Jerry Richardson’s alleged workplace misconduct and the resulting investigation have hijacked the news around the Panthers for more than a week now. The fact that Richardson, 81, now plans to sell the team means that the off-field stories will linger throughout the offseason.
But on Sunday, there’s an important game to be played for the 10-4 Panthers. They need to beat Tampa Bay to secure a playoff spot – they don’t want to have to go to Atlanta on New Year’s Eve in any sort of “Win and you’re in” scenario, because the Falcons are too good to take that sort of risk against.
This, then, is a game the Panthers really should win. Linebacker Luke Kuechly said before this three-game homestand began that the Panthers “have to win them all,” and they have accomplished two-thirds of that already with thrilling home victories against Minnesota and Green Bay.
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Will this one be as close? It shouldn’t be. But knowing the Panthers’ penchant for letting other teams hang around, it could well be.
Tampa Bay will be helped slightly by linebacker Thomas Davis’s absence, but the Bucs are banged up and only 4-10. They still have Jameis Winston, though, and only lost to Atlanta by a field goal Monday night.
▪ I took an unofficial Twitter poll Thursday and Friday. The question was simple: Would Richardson, after seeing his reputation forever tarnished in one fell swoop by Sports Illustrated a week ago, end up watching this game as he almost always does from his open-air, end-zone owner’s box Sunday? Or will he be nowhere to be found inside the stadium?
I gave Twitter users three choices: The Panthers owner will be there; he won’t be there; or “Who cares?”
After the first 1,000 votes were cast, these were the results:
Richardson will be there: 45 percent.
Richardson won’t be there: 31 percent.
Who cares? 24 percent.
My guess? He will be there. Richardson is a prideful man who has not admitted to a speck of wrongdoing as of yet regarding this investigation (although, tellingly, he hasn’t publicly defended himself either). Richardson also said he was “always” going to be the Panthers’ No. 1 fan from now on in his “I’m selling-the-team” statement – and did this remind anyone else of “Misery” and Kathy Bates?). I would think a No. 1 fan would show up.
▪ Tampa Bay has traditionally had a very hard time covering tight end Greg Olsen, especially in Charlotte. In his past four games against the Bucs at Bank of America Stadium, Olsen has averaged 98 receiving yards per game. With the Bucs’ injuries, Olsen really should have a big game Sunday.
▪ One way the NFL could produce more great content for its fans: Persuade more players and coaches to wear microphones during the game.
Last week’s game alone produced two hilarious moments that were caught by on-field mics: Cam Newton’s “Watch this!” to Green Bay’s Clay Matthews after Matthews incorrectly diagnosed a wheel route, and Ron Rivera’s “He’s got a narrow a--!” to an official as the Panthers coach challenged Damiere Byrd’s controversial touchdown reception in the end zone. We need more of all of that. The closer fans can get to the game, the harder it is to turn off.
▪ Prediction time: I was correct about last week’s win, but still only have an 8-6 record picking these Panthers each week. I believe this game will ultimately be the last “easy” game the Panthers play this season. My pick: Carolina 38, Tampa Bay 20.