Coach: John Fox (63-49). Embattled, beleaguered, hanging on by his bicuspids at times over the past few seasons. He has the Panthers playing as well as or better than anyone at the perfect time.
Best players: WR Steve Smith (third in NFL with 1,421 yards); RB DeAngelo Williams (1,515 yards and league-best 18 TDs); LB Jon Beason (138 tackles, third in NFL).
Most interesting player: Steve Smith. Unquestionably one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, he beats up teammates (CB Ken Lucas in training camp), has a Papa Smurf tattoo and worked as an intern at Morgan Stanley. Finally, someone to blame for the fumbling economy.
Most likely to generate a non-football headline: Panthers cheerleaders. Two TopCats were charged with battery, disorderly conduct and obstructing or opposing an officer after an incident in a Banana Joe's bathroom in Tampa in 2005. Patrons were upset Angela Ellen Keathley and Renee Thomas were taking too long to have sex in a bathroom stall, prompting an altercation. Both were dismissed from the squad. Ready? O-K.
Will make it to Tampa if: Williams and RB Jonathan Stewart (836 yards, 10 TDs) continue to amass yards and points, taking pressure off QB Jake Delhomme. Carolina's defense has been smashing and needs to stay that way.
Will watch it from their couch if: The big backs are stopped and Delhomme has to do too much. Smith is a weapon, but the Panthers can't survive in the playoffs as a one-dimensional offense.
Why Tampa Bay will cheer/jeer: The Panthers delivered a roundhouse to the Bucs' hopes of not only an NFC South title but top seed in the playoffs Dec. 8 in a 38-23 Monday Night Football thumping.
Our prediction: The running game will take them far.