Sports Handicapping RLD Investments

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.