For a few weeks now, it’s been clear the Dallas Cowboys are locked into the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, destined to take on the NFC South champions. We’ve all been expecting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to turn it on and take control of the division, but that hasn’t happened.
Tom Brady and Co. are 1-3 in the last four games, and have let a new contender carve a path to a division title.
The Carolina Panthers have won three of its last four games, and control their destiny in the NFC South. Carolina already beat Tampa Bay earlier this year, and the teams square off again in Week 17. If the Panthers beat the Bucs this week and win in Week 18, they’ll host the Cowboys in round one of the playoffs.
Last week, we previewed a potential Cowboys-Buccaneers Wild Card matchup. Now that the Panthers control their own destiny, let’s see if Carolina could be a threat to Big D:
What changed in Carolina?
The Panthers, along with the entire NFC South, have largely been forgotten about this year. It’s easy to see how that would happen when the Buccaneers lead the division at 7-8.
For Carolina, addition by subtraction has saved the season.
After a 1-4 start, the Panthers fired head coach Matt Rhule. Since then, the team is 5-6 under interim coach Steve Wilks. While Carolina’s record under Wilks isn’t eye popping, it’s important to remember the team tried tanking the season away.
At the trade deadline, the Panthers traded former All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers for four draft picks.
Things also turned around in Carolina when QB Baker Mayfield was released during the Week 13 bye. Mayfield was 1-6 as a starter this year. Since Baker’s release, Sam Darnold has returned from injury and is 3-1 as starter.
The Panthers don’t pass the ball often, but since Darnold took over at QB, Carolina’s offense is second in EPA per play, according to The Ringer. EPA (expected points added) measures each play’s impact based on the progress it made to help an offense score.
Are the Panthers a real threat?
While some playoff-bound teams have implemented pass-heavy offenses, Carolina is anything but that. The Panthers average just 175 passing yards per game, the fourth-lowest total in the NFL.
Where Carolina has found success is running the ball. Their 131 rushing yards per game ranks 10th-best in football. Just last week, the Panthers ran for 320 total yards in a win over the surging Detroit Lions. That’s the second-highest mark by a team in a single game this season.
In the dominant 37-23 win, D’Onta Foreman ran for 165 yards and Chubba Hubbard added 125 yards.
This could be troublesome for a Cowboys defense that hasn’t been strong against the run. Dallas allows 130 rushing yards per game; the 11th worst mark in football.
It’s an issue that was more glaring earlier this season, but the Cowboys have certainly gotten better at stopping the run as of late.
More dangerous team: Carolina or Tampa Bay?
As crazy as it sounds, Cowboys fans should be pulling for a first round matchup against the Buccaneers instead of the Panthers.
Who thought we’d see the day where a legitimate argument could be made that a playoff matchup with Tom Brady is the preferred path? Especially considering TB12 holds a 7-0 record vs. the Cowboys in his career.
But this isn’t your prototypical Brady-led team. Tampa Bay is just 1-4 against teams with winning records. The Buccaneers offense averages just 17 points per game; the fifth-worst total in football.
Of course, Tampa Bay embarrassed Dallas in Week 1 with a 19-3 victory at AT&T Stadium. But a key to the Buccaneers success in that game was Leonard Fournette’s 127 rushing yards. Since then, they’ve had the worst rushing attack in football, and only one other time has a Bucs rusher surpassed 100 yards in a game.
Facing a seven-time Super Bowl champion QB in the postseason doesn’t sound good on paper, but it could make for an easier Wild Card matchup for the Cowboys