What matters: Sure, Tampa Bay made some aggressive moves in free agency this offseason, but could anyone have predicted a team that lost its last 10 games last season -- many in blowout fashion -- would be a serious playoff contender in the second half of its first season under coach Greg Schiano? It's reality, though, and the Bucs have a chance to move to 6-4 against the same Carolina team they beat in Week 1 this season.
Who matters: Josh Freeman. It's not exactly going out on a limb to say the quarterback matters, but his best play has (not surprisingly) coincided with Tampa Bay's recent surge. Freeman has 13 touchdown passes and only one interception in his past five games, and he has had a QB rating of 100 or better in each of those same games.
Key matchup: Tampa Bay's pass rush vs. the Carolina pass protection unit. To say the Bucs have struggled against the pass would be a massive understatement, as the team is 32nd in the NFL in that statistic, allowing 321 pass yards per game. To help the struggling corners, Tampa Bay may try to get extra pressure on Carolina QB Cam Newton, who was sacked seven times last week alone. If Newton has time, he should torch the Bucs' secondary.
Injuries of note: Two positions that have been ravaged by injury continue to be an issue for Tampa Bay. CB Eric Wright left last week's win over the Chargers with an Achilles injury and has missed some practice time this week due to "personal reasons." OG Jamon Meredith hurt his ankle in practice on Wednesday and missed Thursday's session. For Carolina, DE Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) and KR Armanti Edwards (groin) may be held out due to injury.
Inside stuff: One way to mask deficiencies on defense, as Tampa Bay has in the secondary? Turnover margin. The Bucs are tied for No. 3 in the NFL in that category at +11. Timely interceptions late in last week's win over the Chargers were what sealed the outcome. Tampa Bay also scored touchdowns in all three phases -- offense, defense and special teams -- in that win. The Bucs have made their living with big plays.
Connections: A couple of Bucs reserves have Carolina ties. DT Corvey Irvin was a Panthers draft pick in 2009, and DTGary Gibson played in Carolina in both 2007 and 2008. Panthers quarterbacks coach Mike Shula played at that spot for the Bucs in 1987 and was a Tampa Bay assistant from 1988-90.
Stat you should know: Tampa Bay has scored 28 or more points in five consecutive games, a team record for offensive production and consistency.
Record watch: The Bucs are seeking their fourth-straight win. The franchise has not had a four-game winning streak since 2008. The team that snapped that streak? Carolina (38-23 in Charlotte).
Looking ahead: Tampa Bay has back-to-back tough games following Sunday's contest against the Panthers, with Atlanta coming to Raymond James Stadium before a road game at Denver. Those teams have a combined record of 14-4, so wins won't be easy to come by. Getting two games over .500 now would give the Bucs a leg up in the playoff hunt and ensure the team will be no worse than 6-6 heading into three winnable games near the end of the season: vs. the Eagles, at the Saints and vs. the Rams.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't need a big performance from Josh Freeman to beat theCarolina Panthers in September. Given his recent efforts, Freeman seems likely to play a bigger role in this week's rematch.
The Buccaneers quarterback will try to lead his team to its first four-game win streak in four years Sunday in Charlotte.
In an inauspicious season debut, Freeman passed for 138 yards and Tampa Bay totaled 258 against Carolina on Sept. 9. The Buccaneers, though, came away with a 16-10 victory as their defense limited the Panthers to 10 rushing yards, intercepted Cam Newton twice and essentially put the game away with a goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs (5-4) still stumbled to a 1/3 start, but Freeman has since powered their surge, throwing for 13 touchdowns and posting a 115.9 rating in the last five games. He hasn't been picked off in his last 151 attempts.
"I think he understands better what we're doing and what we're asking of him," coach Greg Schiano said. "He's playing within himself. He's not trying to make plays. He's just trusting his training and the plays come when you're as talented as Josh Freeman is."
Freeman went 14 of 20 for 210 yards and a pair of TDs in a 34-24 win over San Diego last week. Tampa Bay has averaged 37.5 points in its last four victories and has scored at least 28 points in a team-record five consecutive games.
The Bucs also got a blocked punt return for a score from Adam Heyward and an 83-yard interception return for a TD from Leonard Johnson versus the Chargers.
"What we're trying to do is get guys loose and playing free, knowing what they're doing instead of having to think about it," Schiano said.
Tampa Bay, seeking its first four-game win streak since Nov. 2-30, 2008, has gone 1/3 in its last four visits to Charlotte.
The most recent of those was a 48-16 Panthers win Dec. 24 as Newton passed for three TDs and ran for a 49-yard score.
The Panthers, though, come in having lost six of seven and a 36-14 defeat to Denver on Sunday led to another change, as the team fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy the next day. Carolina let go general manager Marty Hurney on Oct. 22.
"This is a production-based business, and in the end, winning and losing is what it comes down to," coach Ron Rivera said.
To get that much-needed win, the Panthers could use a much better performance by the offensive line. Carolina gave up seven sacks last week, tied for third most in team history.
Recently signed guard Jeremy Bridges, who made 28 starts for Carolina from 2006-08, might replace struggling starter Jeff Byers on Sunday after Rivera said Byers was "exposed" by the Broncos.
Newton threw for two touchdowns for the second time this season last week but was intercepted twice, giving him five in the last four contests. The Panthers (2-7) were held to 14 or fewer points for the fifth time in 2012.
"It's very embarrassing, but things are going to change -- hopefully," Newton said. "I can't keep saying that and not holding up to it, but there are brighter days ahead for the Carolina Panthers."
The Buccaneers won't have linebacker Quincy Black to help stop Newton after he suffered a neck injury in a collision with San Diego running back Ryan Mathews. Black was taken off on a cart and later released from the hospital but is still having issues with his left arm.
Cornerback Eric Wright's status is uncertain after he re-aggravated his Achilles' in last week's victory.
Doug Martin is 138 yards away from becoming the 11th player in Bucs history to rush for 1,000 yards, and the fourth to do so as a rookie. Martin had 95 yards on 24 carries in the first matchup with Carolina.