Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers Fail in Upset Bid in Carolina

Tampa Bay's 2015 season ends with a 38-10 loss at Carolina, as the Bucs broke several single-season offensive records but once again lost the all-important turnover battle.

Photos from the Buccaneers' Week 17 matchup with the Carolina Panthers.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have to wait until next season for another chance to chase that elusive victory over the Carolina Panthers, the three-time defending champions of their division. Just a few days into the new calendar year, the Bucs had hoped to get a jump start on the 2016 campaign by defeating their one-loss NFC South foes, but the playoff-bound Panthers dominated in a 38-10 regular-season capper.

Jameis Winston, Doug Martin and the Buccaneers' offense had difficulty establishing any rhythm against the NFL's fourth-ranked scoring defense, recording just 155 yards in the first half. Tampa Bay led 3-0 after the first quarter but a trio of three-and-outs and an interception by Panthers Pro Bowl LB Thomas Davis led to a 24-point flurry by the Panthers before halftime. Most of the Bucs' first-half yards came on an ultimately-doomed two-minute drill that ended on two incompletions from the three-yard line in the final seven seconds of the second quarter.

The loss extended the Buccaneers' season-ending losing streak to four games and gave them a 6-10 final record in 2016. The Panthers improved to 15-1 and locked up the first seed in the NFC playoffs.

Though the Buccaneers' offense rallied somewhat in the second half and finished with 386 net yards, turnovers were once again a big part of the story. In a 37-23 Week Four win in Tampa, Carolina won the turnover margin, 5-1, and scored 27 points off takeaways. In the rematch, the Panthers improved their league-leading turnover ratio to plus-20 by picking off Winston twice and recovering one fumble. Carolina scored 21 points off its three takeaways while Tampa Bay's defense netted a single field goal off two Lavonte David fumble recoveries.

The Buccaneers put up enough on offense to finish the season with a team-record 6,011 net yards, and Winston became just the third rookie passer in league history to breach 4,000 yards. He completed 29 of 47 throws for 325 yards on Sunday to finish the season with 4,042 yards, but he wasn't in a mood to look back positively at the 2015 campaign immediately after the season finale.

"There's no reason to talk about it," said Winston. "That game's over. We've just got to make a transition to the next season. We can't finish like that. I'm just really anxious for the new season.

"I've just got to get better. I've got to get better every year. That's not good enough. I've got to limit turnovers and I've got to ball out next year."

For the second straight game, the Buccaneers had difficulty getting their running attack going. Doug Martin, who opened the final week with a chance to catch Minnesota's Adrian Peterson for the rushing title, gained just 48 yards on 15 carries, much of it one 30-yard run. Martin did catch seven passes for 60 yards and he was once again complemented by second-year RB Charles Sims, who had 89 combined yards from scrimmage. Wide receiver Mike Evans led the team with 99 yards on four receptions but was ejected from the game in the final minutes after drawing two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties based on an exchange with a game official.

The Buccaneers' defense sacked Newton four times but the potential league MVP still completed 21 of 26 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for two scores. Newton became the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 30 touchdowns and run for at least 10 in the same season. The Buccaneers thought they had a chance to keep Newton and company in check but simply couldn't come up with enough big plays on defense. Carolina converted on seven of 10 third-down tries on the way to 366 total yards.

"I think we had a great game plan," said safety Keith Tandy, who had the first of the Bucs' four sacks to help stop Carolina's opening possession. "Everybody came out playing fast and everybody came out as one and did their jobs. On that sack, everybody did their jobs and it opened right up for me and was a layup for me.

"[Turnovers are] a big part of what we want to do. Every time we see the ball out there we want to be punching it, trying to strip it out. That's what we haven't done a good job of lately, the last half of the season. Coach has been preaching that extra this week, but he preaches it every week."

LB Lavonte David had both of the Bucs' takeaways with a pair of fumble recoveries. He also tied for the team lead with 12 tackles and added a sack, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit. LB Bruce Carter also contributed 12 tackles and a sack.

The Buccaneers scored first after the game's first turnover. CB Alterraun Verner forced a fumble by WR Devin Funchess that LB Lavonte David recovered at Carolina's 45. A 20-yard reception by Martin put the Bucs in range for Connor Barth's 39-yard field goal near the end of the first quarter. Carolina had threatened on its first possession, reaching the Bucs' 22, but consecutive sacks by David and Keith Tandy pushed the Panthers out of field goal range.

Carolina took the lead early in the second quarter with a nine-play, 77-yard drive capped by Newton's one-yard touchdown run on a play-action bootleg to the right. The Panthers improved their edge to 10-3 a few minutes later on Graham Gano's 49-yard field goal. The scoring drive covered 29 yards but included an unusual 41-yard play on which Newton escaped what looked like a sure sack and threw a pass that was deflected by S Bradley McDougald and caught 10 yards farther downfield by Devin Funchess.

The Panthers' first takeaway of the game, a Thomas Davis interception that he returned just across midfield, set up another scoring drive for the home team. This one covered 46 yards on seven plays and ended on RB Cameron Artis-Payne's 11-yard touchdown run. Carolina's defense got the ball back to the offense near midfield almost immediately following that score and Newton made it 24-3 with a 31-yard touchdown pass that just split two Buc defenders at the goal line. Winston used the final 112 seconds of the first half to drive the Bucs down inside the Panthers' 10-yard line, but two attempted passes to TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins in the final seven seconds fell incomplete.

Carolina pushed its lead to 31-3 early in the second half on a one-yard dive by Newton after a fumble by Bobby Rainey on a punt return. Winston responded by leading a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive keyed by Martin's 30-yard burst up the middle. The rookie quarterback finished the drive himself with yet another impressive touchdown run, this one on a bootleg that was well-defended, forcing Winston to out-race one Carolina defender and dive over another at the goal line.

The Panthers made it 38-10 midway through the third quarter on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Newton to WR Devin Funchess following an interception by CB Robert McClain.


Additional notes and in-game details:

  • S Keith Tandy recorded his first career NFL sack with a 10-yard takedown of Cam Newton at the end of Carolina's game-opening possession, forcing a punt.
  • LB Lavonte David recorded his 13th career sack in the first quarter, giving him 13 in his first four NFL seasons. He is tied with Shelton Quarles for fourth-most sacks by a linebacker in Buccaneer history.

Carolina came out running with big back Mike Tolbert and got 12 yards on three totes to start the game. Two plays later, a swing pass to WR Jerricho Cotchery got 21 yards to the Bucs' 37. Newton and Corey Brown just missed hooking up on a deep touchdown pass on the next snap, with CB Mike Jenkins getting a hand on the ball at the last second; the Panthers challenged the ruling but the call was upheld. The Panthers faced a third-and-six moments later but Newton had time to throw and found Olsen on the left sideline for a first down at the Bucs' 23. That's as far as Carolina got, because Lavonte David and Keith Tandy sacked Newton on consecutive plays and that pushed the Panthers out of field goal range. Bobby Rainey fair-caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 17.

The Bucs faced a third-and-nine after two Martin runs got one yard, but Winston kept the sticks moving with a 13-yard strike to Donteea Dye up the left numbers. An eight-yard catch by Martin and Martin's two-yard plunge over right tackle moved the chains again. Two more Martin carries made it third-and-four at the Bucs' 47 but a quick-hitter attempt to Austin Seferian-Jenkins was incomplete and the Bucs had to punt.

The Panthers started again at their own 19 and on their second snap got 18 on a crossing route to WR Devin Funchess. Two plays later, however, CB Alterraun Verner punched the ball out of Funchess's hands after a short pass and David recovered at the Carolina 45. From there, a 20-yard catch-and-run by Martin got the Bucs into field goal range and Barth started the scoring with a 39-yard field goal after a missed third-down attempt to Russell Shepard on third down.

A 21-yard catch by Brown quickly got the ball close to midfield on Carolina's next drive, and a quick slant to the same receiver on the next play moved it down to Tampa Bay's 37. The final play of the first quarter was another quick slant to Funchess that created a first down at Tampa Bay's 24. A nine-yard run by Tolbert on third-and-two made it first-and-goal at the Bucs' seven. Two plays later, Newton faked a handoff and ran a bootleg to the right for an easy one-yard touchdown run.

Carolina's defense forced a three-and-out and Newton quickly got Carolina back into scoring territory. After absorbing a 12-yard sack by Carter, Newton appeared to be going down again in the grasp of DE George Johnson but he escaped and scrambled right, getting off a pass on the run. It was nearly intercepted by S Bradley McDougald, but the ball went through McDougald's hands and deflected to Funchess for a gain of 41. The Bucs forced a third-and-10 at their own 31 but Newton appeared to move the sticks with a 12-yard pass to a diving Brown. However, Lovie Smith challenged the ruling and the call was reversed to an incompletion. The Panthers improved their lead to seven points on Graham Gano's 49-yard field goal.

A 28-yard downfield strike to Evans got the Bucs' next drive started off well, but Winston's next pass was into heavy coverage down the right side and picked off by LB Thomas Davis. Davis returned his interception 22 yards to the Bucs' 46. The Panthers drove the rest of the field on seven plays, capped by Artis-Payne's 11-yard touchdown run.

A second-down toss sweep to Martin ran into a gang of Panthers led by DE Jared Allen on the next Bucs' drive, leading to a six-yard loss and a quick three-and-out. The Bucs had to punt it back to Carolina with nearly three minutes left and a short Jacob Schum kick allowed the Panthers to start one yard into Tampa Bay territory. Tolbert's 18-yard burst up the middle took it down to the Bucs' 31 at the two-minute warning. On the next play after the break, Newton threw a seam pass down the right numbers that Cotchery caught between two leaping Buc defenders for a 31-yard score.

Winston drove the Bucs into Carolina territory in the game's final 90 seconds, first converting a third-and-10 from the Bucs' 20 with a 26-yard strike to Evans. He converted another third down near midfield with a sideline pass to Seferian-Jenkins, then hit Dye for another 14 yards at the Carolina 26. An 11-yard catch by Sims made it first-and-goal at the two-yard line with seven seconds left. The Bucs tried a quick slant to Seferian-Jenkins that was denied, then another one to the tight end that failed as time ran out on the half.

The Bucs got the ball to start the second half and got an initial third down on a defensive holding call on the Panthers' defense. However, Winston absorbed an eight-yard sack on third-and-four from the 37 when he couldn't find anyone open downfield.

Carolina got the ball back at its 32 but went backward on a Tony McDaniel sack and two offensive penalties. On third-and-19, Tolbert got the carry and was dragged down after a gain of 13. However, Rainey fumbled on the ensuing punt and the Panthers' Joe Webb recovered the ball and returned it to the Bucs' three-yard line. Newton scored two plays later on a one-yard plunge to make it 31-3.

A 30-yard breakaway run by Martin got the Bucs into Carolina territory on the next drive, and Winston made it first-and-goal at the Carolina four with a precise 21-yard strike to Seferian-Jenkins on second-and-14. On the next play, Winston faked a handoff and ran a bootleg to the left. The Panthers weren't completely fooled, which forced the rookie passer to elude one defender and dive over another at the goal line for the score.

Carolina took its next drive into Bucs territory and seemed headed for the red zone on a quick slant to WR Brenton Bersin. However, David poked the ball out Bersin's hand and recovered it off the turf for his second takeaway of the game. Three snaps later, Evans converted a third-and-eight with an impressive leaping grab under tight coverage for a gain of 15. That ended the third quarter, and on the first play of the fourth period Evans hauled in a 30-yarder down to the Panthers' 32. Three plays later, TE Cameron Brate fell down coming out of the break on his route and Winston's pass thus sailed directly into the arms of CB Robert McClain for the interception.

Carolina took the ensuing possession into Buccaneers territory and appeared to convert a third-and-10 from the 33 with a well-executed receiver screen to Brown. Brown got to the Bucs' 15, though the Bucs then challenged that he fumbled at the end of the play. The call stood, making if first-and-10, but it was third-and-11 moments later. The Bucs brought a huge blitz on third down and Newton capitalized with a quick strike to Funchess for a 16-yard score.

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