Monday, 4 a.m.
Cam Newton, the MVP of the whole shebang, is out.
Doug Martin, the Bucs' Pro Bowl running back, is out.
Jonathan Stewart, who was 11 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season for the Panthers, is out.
Gerald McCoy, a four-time Pro Bowler, is out.
Michael Oher, who has resurrected his career in Carolina, is out.
So who wins the Monday night?
And who loses?
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Okay, okay. Even with Newton out, the Panthers figure to be heavy favorites. They still have Luke Kuechly, they still have Greg Olsen, they still have a strong defensive line. They're at home. They have Derek Anderson, who has beaten the Bucs twice. They have a restructured secondary, but Bucs' quarterback Jameis Winston seems to really, really like throwing the ball for interceptions.
So do the Bucs have a puncher's chance.
Frankly, the Panthers are struggling, too. Newton hasn't been great. The offensive line has struggled.
Then there is this: Over the years, some of the best performances in the history of Bucs have come on Monday night. Maybe it's the whiskey-spirit of the night. Maybe it's the bright lights. But over the years, the Bucs have been pretty good on Monday night.
Oh, there are so many “nights” for the NFL any more. Sunday. Thursday. Saturday.
But Monday night, the night of Howard Cosell and Don Meredith and Jon Gruden, the Bucs have shown up.
Here's the thing, however. If it's close in the third quarter, or even the fourth, do you have any confidence that the Bucs can pull the game out. Do you think the Bucs can pick up a third-and-two? Do you think Winston can move the ball downfield?
And if not, when?
Eventually, it's going to take a night like this, when the Bucs go from playing close to winning the darned game. Eventually, the quarterback has to be precise and the receivers have to get open and the defense has to stand up and the penalties have to stop.
Along the way, someone has to be emerge as a quiet star. Maybe it will be Kwon Alexander. Maybe Vernon Hargreaves. Maybe Ali Marpet. Maybe Jacquizz Rodgers. Maybe Adam Humphries.
Someone like this:
Bucs' top 10 Monday night stars:
1. Derrick Brooks, 1998: Brooks helped the Bucs' 24-22 victory over Green Bay with 17 tackles. Behind Brooks, the Bucs' defesne sacked Brett Favre eight times and forced eight fumbles.
2. Simeon Rice, 2003: In perhaps the last great night of the Bucs' best-ever run, Rice had two sacks as the Bucs' embarrassed Philadelphia, 17-0.
3. Shawn King, 2000: Perhaps King's most memorable night, as he threw for 256 yards in a 38-35 victory over St. Louis.
4. Mike Washington, 1982: Washington intercepted two passes, including on on the final play of the game to preserve the Bucs' 23-17 win over the Dolphins. It was Tampa Bay's first Monday night win.
5. Mike Alstott, 1999: Alstott had 99 yards of the Bucs' 103 yards rushing in a 24-17 victory over Minnesota.
6. Warren Sapp, 2001: Sapp had two sacks in a 24-17 victory over the Rams.
7. Michael Husted, 1995: Husted forced overtime when his fourth-quarter field goal tied the game at 10-10, then sealed the Bucs 13-10 win in the extra time.
8. Warrick Dunn, 2000: Scored three touchdowns in the 38-35 victory over the Rams.
9. Vinny Testaverde, 1990: Testaverde hit five of his last seven passes for 90 yards, including directing the Bucs' winning score. He threw three yards to John Harvey for the win.
10. Donald Penn, 2013: Penn – yes, Penn – caught a one-yard touchdown in a 22-19 win over the Dolphins.