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Panthers at Buccaneers

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The NFC South race is pretty much the Saints to lose at this point. Past 5-1 New Orleans, the other three teams in the division own a combined 5-13 record, as two of those clubs hook up on Thursday night. Week 8 kicks off with the winless Buccaneers hosting the surging Panthers, as Carolina has come back to life following an 0-2 start to the season.

The Panthers (3-3 SU, 3-3 ATS) lost a pair of tight contests to the Seahawks and Bills in the first two weeks of the season by a combined six points. Carolina is back in business by winning three of its last four games, while scoring at least 30 points in all three victories. Ron Rivera's squad hasn't beaten a team that is currently above .500, but the Panthers are taking care of their business against the foes on their schedule.

The most recent triumph for the Panthers came against the Rams last Sunday in a 30-15 home victory as 7 ½-point favorites. Cam Newton put together an efficient 15-of-17 day passing with one touchdown, while Captain Munnerlyn's interception return for a score less than a minute in to the game set the tone for Carolina. The Panthers' defense forced three turnovers, while knocking out St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford for the season with a torn left ACL suffered in the fourth quarter.

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The Buccaneers (0-6 SU, 1-5 ATS) have pretty much a disaster since the start of the season. The opening week loss to the Jets in which a late unsportsmanlike conduct penalty set up the game-winning field goal opened the door to six consecutive losses. Also, Tampa Bay cut veteran quarterback Josh Freeman after four weeks and handed the offense over to former North Carolina State standout Mike Glennon. The move hasn't resulted in wins for Tampa Bay, who suffered its most recent to another division foe last week.

Tampa Bay fell behind early in last Sunday's 31-23 defeat at Atlanta as six-point underdogs, as the Bucs trailed by as many as 17. The Falcons rushed for just 18 yards on 18 carries, but Matt Ryan torched Tampa Bay's defense for three touchdowns. Amazingly, the Bucs held onto the ball for nearly 38 minutes, while Glennon hooked up with Vincent Jackson on a pair of touchdown tosses. The game easily went 'over' the closing total of 43, the second straight 'over' for Greg Schiano's club following four consecutive 'unders' to start the season.

The Panthers are playing with double-revenge after getting swept by the Bucs last season. Tampa Bay grabbed the 2012 season opener, 13-10 to cash outright as three-point home underdogs. The Bucs jumped out to a 13-0 halftime lead before holding off a late Carolina rally, while limiting the Panthers to only 10 yards rushing. Tampa Bay pulled off the season sweep after overcoming a 21-10 deficit to stun Carolina last November, 27-21 in Charlotte. Doug Martin tore up the Panthers' defense for 138 yards on the ground, while Jackson hauled in 94 yards receiving and a touchdown.

The Bucs will be without Martin this Thursday and likely for the next few weeks with a left shoulder injury, which was suffered in the loss at Atlanta. Tampa Bay will turn to former Miami Hurricanes' running back Mike James to fill Martin's void, as James rushed for 45 yards and 14 carries against the Falcons.

VegasInsider.com handicapper Antony Dinero says this is a must-win for the Panthers to be a legit squad in the NFC, "Thanks in part of the relative mediocrity of the rest of the NFC, the Panthers have an opportunity to establish themselves as a playoff team at the season's midway point. They'll have to get accustomed to being the hunted, so seeing how they handle this role of road favorite against a winless team starting a rookie backfield will tell us a lot about their killer instinct. Will Newton be unleashed, or will Carolina take the cautious approach and limit risks? Both the margin of victory and total will hinge on Rivera's approach."

Since the start of 2012, the Panthers own a profitable 7-4 ATS record away from Bank of America Stadium, although they have covered just once in three tries this season. As a favorite in this stretch, Rivera's club is just 3-6 ATS, while failing to cover as road 'chalk' at Buffalo and Arizona. The Panthers have split their last six trips to Raymond James Stadium since 2007, with their last win coming in 2011 as three-point favorites.

On the flip side, the Bucs have been a horrible home underdog since Jon Gruden's departure after the 2008 season. Tampa Bay owns a dreadful 4-14 ATS record at Raymond James Stadium since 2009 when receiving points, although one of those covers came in Week 2 against New Orleans in a 16-14 loss in the final seconds as three-point 'dogs. That ATS win against the Saints was the only one through six contests for the Buccaneers this season.

The Panthers are listed as six-point favorites at many books, while the total sits at 40. The game kicks off at 8:25 PM EST and can be seen on the NFL Network.

You can reach Kevin Rogers via e-mail at rogers@vegasinsider.com

Kevin Rogers can be followed on Twitter at virogers.

  
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