TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The surest path to the playoffs is winning a division title.
It's also a journey that doesn't figure to be easy for Carolina and equally inconsistent Tampa Bay in the NFC South, where two games separate first and last place.
Beginning Sunday, the Panthers (4-3) will play five of their remaining nine games within the tightly contested division that produced the past two NFC representatives in the Super Bowl.
The last-place Buccaneers (2-4) play six of their final 10 against Carolina, Atlanta (3-3), and current division leader New Orleans (4-2), which has rebounded from an 0-2 start to win four straight games.
The Bucs and Falcons are riding three-game losing streaks. The Panthers, coming off a 14-point road loss to Chicago in which they failed to score a touchdown, have dropped two straight after winning four of five to begin the season.
As a result, none of the teams have been able to separate themselves from the others.
"For the most part that's the way it is throughout the league," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of the way the race is shaping up.
"There are just a couple of teams right now that have stepped ahead of everybody else," Rivera added. "Other than that, I think it's the parity the league is looking for."
The Panthers shrugged off a 21-point home loss to New Orleans to beat New England and Detroit on the road to soar to the top of the standings. Losses to Philadelphia and the Bears the past two weeks dropped them behind the first-place Saints.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has the league's second-ranked offense but has been a huge disappointment defensively, allowing 30 or more points in three of its four losses.
The way the Bucs played in losing at Arizona and Buffalo the past two weeks, coach Dirk Koetter reiterated his struggling team can't afford to look at the division race beyond playing the Panthers on Sunday.
"The only thing you can do right now is ... get one win," Koetter said.
"I showed the guys the division standings, and we are what we've earned to this point," the coach added. "The fact that some other teams got beat in our division is in our favor, and it is a factor (that) we have not played division games and those games can move you up fast. ... But we have to play better football."
All four teams have held the division lead at some point over the first half of the season. Rivera expects more of the same down the stretch.
"I don't know if we'll separate ourselves until Week 10 or 11, maybe in two or three more weeks there might be separation," Rivera said. "But if there isn't, I promise you this is going to come down to the last three or four weeks where we're going to wind up playing each other again."
Some things to watch Sunday:
WINSTON'S SHOULDER: Despite playing with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston threw for 384 yards and three TDs in last week's 30-27 loss to Buffalo. For the second straight week, he did not throw in practice on Wednesday and Thursday, but is expected to make his 39th consecutive start since entering the NFL as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2015.
CHUNK PLAYS: This could be the week Panthers quarterback Cam Newton gets back on track. Carolina has struggled with picking up big chunk plays over the past two games with only one pass completion of longer than 20 yards.
The Bucs have struggled against the pass and Newton has taken advantage of those types of teams this season.
Carolina is so desperate to find a deep threat that they've claimed wide receiver Kaelin Clay off waivers from Buffalo and there is a good chance he could be active this week.
Rivera has been waiting for rookie Curtis Samuel to make plays down the field, but that hasn't happened so far.
"When we're playing Panther football it's pretty exciting and when we're not it's just a lethargic team out there that's motionless," Newton said. "That has to change. We have to give ourselves reasons to celebrate and be enthusiastic while out there on the football field. When you do that, that's contagious."
KUECHLY'S RETURN: All eyes will be on Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly if he returns to the field as expected this week. Kuechly suffered his third concussion in three years on Oct. 12 against the Eagles.
He spent three weeks in the NFL's concussion protocol the previous two instances, but this one was shorter as he's only missed one game.
The Panthers will need the three-time All-Pro linebacker against a team that likes to throw to its tight ends and backs. Starting safety Kurt Coleman, who missed three games with a knee injury, also is slated to return this week.
SHEPARD HOMECOMING: Panthers wide receiver WR Russell Shepard returns to face his former team, the Buccaneers. Shepard had a 40-yard TD in Carolina's season opener, but hasn't contributed much since then.
Still, he is well respected in the Bucs locker room. Winston called Shepard a "great teammate" and "workaholic." The quarterback added: "I'm so proud of him and what he has achieved. I can't tell you how much Russell Shepard taught me as a football player and as a friend."
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