|Quarterback Josh Freeman hopes to lead Tampa Bay to a better season in 2012 after a 4-12 mark last year, including a 10-game losing streak to end the season. (AP Images)|
Buccaneers vs. Panthers -- Week 1
Where: Raymond James Stadium (grass, outdoors)
When: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET (Fox)
Spread: Panthers by 2.5
Forecast: Rain possible; projected kickoff temperature: low 80s.
2011 records: Buccaneers (4-12); Panthers (6-10)
Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Dec. 4, 2011: Panthers 38, Bucs 19; Dec. 24, 2011: Panthers 48, Bucs 16. Series record: Carolina holds a 14-9 edge.
What matters: The Panthers' two routs over their NFC South rivals from Tampa Bay were part of a 10-game losing streak to end the Bucs' season (and the tenure of then-coach Raheem Morris). Things should be different for the Buccaneers now, as the team added several key free agents (offensive guard Carl Nicks, receiver Vincent Jackson, tight end Dallas Clark) and a pair of impact rookies (safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin) in the hopes of making the roster competitive immediately. It will only be the first game of Greg Schiano's tenure as coach, but this should be a good measuring stick of how far the Bucs have come in just one offseason.
Who matters: Quarterback Josh Freeman had an impressive 2010 season but followed it up with a lackluster showing in 2011. How much of that falls on Freeman himself is debatable -- the Bucs were almost always playing from behind because of an atrocious defense, leaving Freeman (who had few weapons at his disposal) to pass in poor situations often. With Jackson and Clark to throw to, and a rebuilt offensive line in front of him, more is expected of Freeman this season.
Key matchup: Tampa Bay's defense vs. Carolina QB Cam Newton. OK, it goes without saying that any team that wants to be successful in the NFL should start by slowing down the opposing quarterback. But that's especially true in this game, as Newton victimized the Bucs in both matchups as a rookie in 2011. Of Carolina's 718 yards of offense in the two games, 594 were the result of Newton's passes or runs. If the Buccaneers can slow him, they should be far more competitive.
Injuries of note: Receiver Arrelious Benn missed essentially the entire preseason for the Bucs with a knee injury, but he participated fully in practice this week and expects to play. Carolina seems likely to be without running back Jonathan Stewart due to an ankle injury, while receiver Steve Smith seems likely to play despite a foot issue.
Inside stuff: The Bucs demoted receiver Preston Parker from the role of punt returner, and the current depth chart lists Sammie Stroughter as the starter there. But Stroughter was limited during the preseason, and rookie running back Michael Smith made the roster in part because of his playmaking ability on special teams. If Tampa Bay's return game flounders early, a change could be in order.
Connections: Panthers quarterbacks coach Mike Shula played at that position for the Bucs in 1987 and was a Tampa Bay assistant from 1988-90. Beyond that, because of the Bucs' recent struggles (and their new coaching staff, led by Schiano, a longtime college coach at Rutgers), there just aren't many ties between these two teams.
Stat you should know: Tampa Bay's defense was statistically the worst in the NFL in 2011 in terms of yards and points allowed, but Carolina wasn't much better. It finished the season fifth-worst in total defense and sixth-worst in scoring defense.
Bulletin board quote: Bucs defensive lineman Gerald McCoy on Carolina's Newton: "I had to watch him from the sidelines last year and it stunk because of what he did to us. But the thing about it is, we never made him uncomfortable. So our goal this time is to make him uncomfortable and see how he reacts to that. The thing you got to remember is, it's a different year.''
Looking ahead: Considering what is a tough early-season schedule for the Buccaneers (they have road games at the defending Super Bowl champion Giants and a Cowboys team that looked impressive in the NFL season-opener on Wednesday night), a loss to the Panthers could easily leave the team staring at an 0-3 start and another miserable season. An opening win would go a long way towards getting the Schiano era off to a strong start.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Bucs 24
For more from Tampa Bay Bucs blogger Patrick Southern, follow @CBSSportsNFLTB on Twitter.