Bucs want to finish strong, despite only slim playoff hopes
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Tampa Bay's slender playoff prospects are not foremost on Jameis Winston's mind heading into what's likely to be his team's season finale against the Carolina Panthers.
What matters more to the young quarterback is the Buccaneers not only finish strong against the defending NFC champions, but play with a fervor that doesn't reflect the disappointment of letting a potential postseason berth slip away.
A win gives the Bucs (8-7) their first winning season in six years. That, plus six other results going Tampa Bay's way on Sunday, would send them into the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Winston's not counting on all that happening . He and his teammates control one thing: their effort against the Panthers (6-9), who are closing out a frustrating year in which they've dropped five games by three or fewer points after going 17-1 before losing to Denver in the Super Bowl last season.
''For the organization, for fans, a lot of people are happy. But the mentality of this team, our ultimate goal is win playoff games, win Super Bowls,'' said the first overall pick in the 2015 draft. ''It's exciting that we have a chance to have a winning season, but that's not something that we're aiming for at the beginning of the season.
''We're aiming for the highest, and I think as long as we keep expecting the highest and raising our bar, that's the better we're going to become.''
Cam Newton feels the same way about the Panthers, who the reigning NFL MVP said would benefit by winning by the finale, even though they'll still finish with a record that falls well short of expectations.
''It's extremely important, especially for our team's DNA for us to create great habits and going into this (offseason) preparing to win late in the season,'' Newton said.
Coach Ron Rivera agrees.
''It's very important because it helps us control the tempo moving forward,'' he said. ''That's the thing you always look to do is just set the tone and tempo.''
SLIM HOPES: To grab the remaining NFC wild-card playoff berth, the Bucs not only have to beat Carolina to sweep the season series between the NFC South rivals for the first time since 2012, but need Green Bay to lose, Washington tie, and Dallas, Indianapolis, Tennessee and San Francisco all to win on the last day of the regular season.
PANTHERS BANGED UP: The Panthers are out of playoff contention, so it's possible they will err on the side of caution with several players when it comes to injuries.
Rivera has already ruled out linebacker Luke Kuechly, even though he has been cleared from the NFL concussion protocol. Kuechly hasn't played since Nov. 17. Wide receiver Devin Funchess (knee) was placed on injured reserve this week, and running back Jonathan Stewart (foot) and tight end Greg Olsen (elbow) missed the first two days of practice with injuries that leave their status for Sunday up in the air.
NEWTON'S STRUGGLES: Regardless of how things shake out, Rivera said Newton is expected to start against the Bucs despite a sore right shoulder. Just how accurate Newton will be could be the big question.
Last season's MVP has failed to complete 50 percent of his passes in five of the last six games. Newton has 18 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions this season. His numbers are way down from last year, when he had 35 TD passes and 10 picks. However, he typically has played well against the Bucs with 14 career TD passes and four INTs in eight meetings.
RUNNING WOES: The Bucs will play without two-time Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin, who begins serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances. Jacquizz Rodgers will replace him. The sixth-year pro has two 100-yard rushing performances this season, including the first of his six-year career when he gained 101 on 30 carries in Tampa Bay's 17-14 win at Carolina on Oct. 10.
HEAVY HEARTS: The Panthers come into the game with heavy hearts after losing former special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven to prostate cancer earlier in the week.
The highly popular DeHaven was well respected among the special teams players in the locker room. It was uncertain if the team would do anything to honor DeHaven, who left his full-time role as coordinator this past summer to take on an advisory role while receiving treatment for cancer.
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte contributed to this report.
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