The Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin life without one of their offensive lynchpins as they tangle with the visiting Carolina Panthers on Thursday night in an NFC South showdown.
The Buccaneers have dropped six consecutive games to start the season and have lost stud running back Doug Martin to a torn labrum. Mike James gets the start in Martin's absence, but he'll have his hands full with a Carolina defense that has stuffed opposing rushers all season.
Here's the breakdown in our betting tale of the tape:
The Buccaneers have scuffled on the offensive end this season, though things may be looking up after rookie quarterback Mike Glennon racked up 256 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last week's 31-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Tampa Bay is still averaging fewer than 200 passing yards per game, and a rush attack that ranks just 20th in the NFL in yards per game (101.2) will likely struggle further with the downgrade from Martin to James.
Carolina is also having trouble generating offense through the air, posting just 197.3 passing yards per game. The biggest difference between the division rivals is on the ground, where the Panthers rank seventh in the NFL with better than 130 yards per contest while putting up five touchdowns. The likely return of running back Jonathan Stewart in Week 9 from ankle injuries that have sidelined him all season should further bolster the Carolina running game.
Depite the Buccaneers' early-season struggles, the Tampa Bay run defense remains one of the toughest in the league. Teams are averaging fewer than 89 rushing yards per game against the Bucs, and they are tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the fewest rushing touchdowns against (one). The pass defense has been more porous, allowing the 18th-most yards per game (252) while surrendering 11 touchdowns, tied for 11th-most in the league.
Carolina's charge toward an NFC playoff berth is being built on the strength of its defense. The Panthers have been one of the stingiest teams in the NFL against the pass, limiting opposing teams to 218 yards per game and five total touchdowns - tied with Pittsburgh for the fewest in the league. The run defense is also stout, surrendering the fourth-fewest yards per contest (84.5) and giving up just a pair of scores through the first six weeks.
Tampa Bay has been solid in the return game, averaging the fifth-most yards on kickoffs (27.6) and ranking 10th in punt-return average (10.8). The Bucs have the ninth-best kickoff return average against (22) and are allowing the opposition just seven yards per punt return. Veteran kicker Rian Lindell is just 8-of-10 on field-goal attempts, but connected on all three of his attempts last weekend against the Falcons.
The Panthers have been a below-average return team so far in 2013, ranked 20th in kickoff-return average (22.8) and tied for 24th on punt returns (6.3). The Panthers have surrendered the 11th-most kickoff yards per attempt (23) and are allowing 10.3 yards per punt return, the seventh-highest mark in the league. Kicker Graham Gano hasn't been busy - his nine field-goal attempts are tied for the fewest in the NFL - but he has connected on all of them.
"What's most important is I think the guys recognize that every other NFL player watches this game, at least if they're a football fan they do. The Thursday night football game is part of their week. It's a big part of our league. When you get a chance to be the only show in the league, everybody understands that." - Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano on the importance of performing well on the national stage
"We're relevant. We're a young team that has gotten to a point now where we're doing the things that we need to do and showing what we're capable of. It's a great opportunity for this team, for this city, to make a mark. We have to go out and do that." - Carolina head coach Ron Rivera