81F Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hoping new coach Greg Schiano can help revive a team that ended 2011 on a 10-game losing streak.
These NFC South rivals have finished in the division's bottom two spots each of the last three years, and they hope to change that in 2012 starting with Sunday's matchup at Raymond James Stadium.
The only winning season since 2009 for either of these clubs was Tampa Bay's 10-6 mark two years ago. Any cause for optimism, however, went away with last year's 10-game slide, which resulted in a 4-12 finish and the dismissal of coach Raheem Morris.
Schiano will make his NFL head coaching debut after posting a 68-67 record at Rutgers over 11 seasons, including five straight bowl victories. One of his first assignments will be to help Josh Freeman regain his confidence after the quarterback finished second in the NFL with 22 interceptions in 2011.
Freeman posted 25 touchdowns and six interceptions during the 10-win campaign the year before.
"I have an awful taste in my mouth from last season," Freeman said. "It's something I don't ever want to ever have happen again."
Carolina, meanwhile, has no doubts about its quarterback.
Newton won offensive rookie of the year honors in 2011, throwing for 21 touchdowns and rushing for 14 more - an NFL record for a quarterback. He earned a spot in the Pro Bowl and finished with 4,051 yards passing to break Peyton Manning 's record for a rookie.
The Panthers won four of their final six games to finish 6-10 in 2011, and expect to contend for the postseason this year.
"I think the whole vibe around this team is different this year," Newton said. "There's a sense in the air that everybody is anticipating something great is going to happen and that's exciting."
Carolina's strong play down the stretch included two December victories over Tampa Bay by a combined score of 86-35. Newton threw for four touchdowns and ran for four more in those contests, and Schiano is very familiar with such multi-dimensional signal-callers.
"He adds a dimension to the game that I'm probably more used to coming from college than some of the guys that have been in the league for a while," Schiano said. "Doesn't mean just because you're familiar with him, doesn't mean you can stop him. He proved that last year."
The Buccaneers have made numerous changes on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, former Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson was signed to a five-year deal and former Colts tight end Dallas Clark was also brought in. A running game that produced 1,458 yards for the league's third-worst total could be better with first-round pick Doug Martin of Boise State complementing third-year back LeGarrette Blount .
Bad news came when two-time Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. The offensive line, though, got a boost from the signing of former Saints All-Pro left guard Carl Nicks .
Tampa Bay made defensive additions after yielding an NFL-worst and franchise-record 494 points a season ago. Second-round pick Lavonte David will start at linebacker while seventh overall draft pick Mark Barron will start at strong safety, with veteran Ronde Barber shifting to free safety.
The Panthers are treating this contest like a bowl game since they arrived in Tampa early due to the Democratic National Convention being held in Charlotte this week.
"It's definitely different," coach Ron Rivera said. "A lot of guys are like, 'Hey coach it's like getting ready for a bowl game.' They have the right attitude and the right mental frame of mind going in."
Smith thrived in his first season with Newton, finishing fifth in the league with 1,394 yards receiving - his highest total in three seasons.
Rivera is optimistic that Jonathan Stewart will play despite a sprained right ankle, though he is listed as questionable and hasn't practiced fully since getting hurt last month. The combination of DeAngelo Williams , Newton and Stewart helped Carolina average 150.5 yards on the ground for the league's third-best mark last year.
Defensively, linebacker Luke Kuechly of Boston College was drafted ninth overall and should boost a unit that struggled in 2011. Carolina allowed 429 points, the third-most in the NFC.
The Panthers were either ahead or tied in the fourth quarter in 12 of 16 games, but their 143 points yielded in the final period were the league's highest total.
"We have to finish," Newton said.
With playoff teams New Orleans and Atlanta comprising the rest of the division, these clubs know their head-to-head matchups take on an added importance.
"This game is huge for us," Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross said. "I know the Bucs are really wanting to rebound from last season's record that they had, and they're a good young team just like we are."