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Nostra Thomas scrapes by

Tampa Bay was once Carolina’s biggest rival. The Panthers shared more memorable games with the Buccaneers than they did New Orleans or Atlanta. Also, Tampa Bay had Warren Sapp.

Carolina’s biggest rival this season is the Saints, as the standings attest. The Panthers will trail the Saints by two games, one game or be even when they play in New Orleans next week. The game is so big I’ve volunteered to go down to New Orleans two days early. It’s called sacrifice.

Tampa Bay reminds me of the 2011 Panthers. The Bucs began the season miserably (they lost their first eight games). Four of the losses were by three or fewer points. They start a rookie quarterback. Their coach was overmatched. And then, once the Buccaneers were out of playoff contention, they found themselves. They’ve won three straight. They’re a solid team and they’re playing loose.

The Panthers learned last week they have to play hard and effectively against glamor opponents and everybody else, too.

After the picking the winner and the winning margin of Carolina’s victories against San Francisco and New England, I struggled last week. I picked the Panthers to beat Miami by 2. They won by 4.

CAROLINA 27, Tampa Bay 21

Last Week: 7-7 (I count the Green Bay-Minnesota tie as a loss.)

Season: 114-62

Upset of the Week: Picked Dallas (+21/2) to beat the New York Giants. The Cowboys won by 3.

Season: 8-4

Lock of the Week: Picked Pittsburgh (-31/2) to cover against the New York Jets. Pittsburgh won by 16.

Season: 7-4-1

This week’s picks, with the home team in CAPS:

Denver 29, KANSAS CITY 20

The Chiefs were good when they had the NFL’s pass best rush. They don’t anymore. If they can’t get to Peyton Manning, they can’t win.

SEATTLE 27, New Orleans 23

The two toughest stadiums for a visitor are in New Orleans and Seattle. The Saints are 3-2 on the road this season. They beat Tampa Bay, Chicago and Atlanta and lost to New England and the New York Jets. You saw the Saints against Atlanta last week; they struggled. The Seahawks’ secondary is missing two players because of suspensions. But this is their place. They’re 5-0 at home and have won by an average of 17 points. If the game were in New Orleans, I’d pick the Saints.

The rest:

Chicago 24, MINNESOTA 20

INDIANAPOLIS 28, Tennessee 19

CLEVELAND 24, Jacksonville 17

PHILADEPHIA 27, Arizona 23

SAN FRANCISCO 29, St. Louis 23

BUFFALO 28, Atlanta 24 (in Toronto)

SAN DIEGO 31, Cincinnati 26

New York Giants 20, WASHINGTON 16

Upset of the Week: Miami (+2) 23, NEW YORK JETS 19

The first 10 weeks of the season the Jets would win one week and lose the next. Back and forth they flipped. They couldn’t decide if they were good or bad. They decided.

Lock of the Week: New England (-71/2) 30, HOUSTON 16

The Patriots are making their annual late-season run, and they’re playing a team that lost at home last week to Jacksonville. If the Texans are not the league’s worst team, who is?

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