Carolina and Tampa meet in Charlotte for the second half of the series - and since October, they're two teams that have been busy.
You wouldn't have expected Carolina, next facing San Francisco and New England, to have not lost since then. But Tampa? They're suddenly 3-1 since. The one loss was by 3 to Seattle, potentially the league's best team. Tampa pulled itself solidly out of the cellar to what now appears to be a 3rd place finish in division playing a similar fashion of football they did all year. They're still a team that wants to run the ball, stop the run, and set you up for third down. They're just doing a better job of it.
Since these teams have met already, I'll lay off some of the schematic and matchup stuff, none of that has really changed.
Without Doug Martin, they've suddenly found better backs. Martin was plodding along at 3.5 yards per carry before getting hurt before Carolina. Mike James (4.5) and Bobby Rainey (4.9) have taken advantage of some poor rush defenses along the way, but are putting up solid numbers. Vet fullback Brian Leonard appears to be getting starter snaps with James now hurt, but Rainey is the hot hand, and he was another high performer against Atlanta (30 carries 130 yards, 2 TD).
QB Mike Glennon's still a rookie, and he's still goofy looking. 114 QB rating, though, in his last 3 games, where he's turned the ball over once. He's remaining efficient without doing anything stupid. He can force the ball to WR Vincent Jackson (10 rec against Atlanta) but isn't desperate (Jackson, therefore, often goes underutilized).
The secondary remains an issue - I feel better, to a point, after Cam Newton did some necessary things against tough DBs the last few weeks. Since the last game, Darrelle Revis has hurt himself again, and I don't know if he's going to play. Johnathan Banks is a big matchup guy, and he did well against the bigger Calvin Johnson, but he's not a guy who would be as ideal against Steve Smith. Revis remains questionable.
Dashon Goldson has been on a bad streak of illegal hits and big penalties, so the hope is you can get him a bit more conservative. Mark Barron remains a short-space playmaker.
With or without Revis, you still want to spread Tampa, as much as you can while leaving a little help in blocking to keep Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy off Cam Newton. With potentially no Deangelo Williams, and unsure whether Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert will play, it's hard to know how they'll play the run game - Carolina has to have the playaction game, and they have to have respectable third downs.
They're not impossible to run on - they've seen their YPA drop to a median 14th. But, they still put Barron in the box and force you to make plays, and if they have Revis at playing health, they'll play a lot of man and Cover 1 Robber behind it. It looks like the league's best blocking TE comes back in Ben Hartsock; that can't hurt. Carolina can be creative with its 2 TE looks, since Greg Olsen can split wide, but it's been missing the past couple of weeks; it didn't help the running game for him to be gone, either. If Tolbert is somewhat limited, Richie Brockel's role will shift to FB a good deal more, where he was a solid fill-in blocker at TE (including some really solid blocks in the passing game).
I don't think this is a significantly different team from the one Carolina beat 31-13. It just believes in itself now. This isn't a 3-8 team, this is a 3-0 team. Carolina's got its hands full with this one.