What looked like a developing shootout in the first half Saturday at Bank of America Field turned into a one-sided fight, as the Carolina Panthers scored 28 straight second-half points en route to a 48-16 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The first half featured two very sharp quarterbacks, no punts and a total of seven scores on eight combined possessions. However, the Buccaneers committed three of their four turnovers after the intermission and Carolina turned them into 21 points and a runaway win. That gave the Panthers, who did not commit a single turnover, a season-sweep of the intra-divisional series after their 38-19 win in Tampa in Week 13.
Josh Freeman was on target most of the day for the Buccaneers, completing 28 of 38 passes for 274 and one touchdown, with his lone interception coming off a tipped pass shortly after halftime. He spread the ball around to nine different players, with five of them catching at least four passes each. Freeman also ran six times for four yards and his fourth rushing touchdown of the season, also converting a key fourth-and-one with a power sneak in the second quarter.
However, Cam Newton, the Panthers' prolific rookie quarterback, had another big day against the Buccaneers, throwing for 171 yards and three touchdowns and adding a 49-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. In two games against the Bucs, Newton accounted for a total of eight touchdowns, four each on the ground and through the air. In the process, he set NFL single-season records for passing yards by a rookie and touchdown runs by a quarterback of any variety.
The Buccaneers fell into a quick hole after RB LeGarrette Blount fumbled on their first offensive snap, setting Olindo Mare up for a short field goal after the Panthers had driven 80 yards for a touchdown on the game's first possession. However, that was Tampa Bay's only giveaway of the first half and Freeman kept the visitors in the game with a pair of long scoring drives. The first ended in an impressive toe-tapping touchdown catch by WR Arrelious Benn, the second in Connor Barth's 42-yard field goal.
Unfortunately, things got out of hand quickly in the second half, as the tipped-pass interception by S Jonathan Nelson and fumbles by Kellen Winslow and Sammie Stroughter all resulted in touchdown drives, two of them starting at or inside midfield.
While Freeman ended up with significantly more passing yards than Newton, he did not have anywhere near the ground support his rookie counterpart enjoyed. Carolina ran 31 times for 270 yards, with three different players – Newton and primary backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams – all racking up at least 65 yards on the ground. Stewart was the lead back, with 88 yards on just seven carries, but Williams punched the ball in for the Panthers with touchdown runs of eight and 22 yards. Stewart did find the end zone in the third quarter on an 11-yard catch on fourth-and-one that made the game 34-10.
Blount didn't return to the game until the third quarter after his early fumble and finished with just two carries for 11 yards. Carolina finished with an overall yardage edge of 433 to the Bucs' 317. Tampa Bay's defense did manage to keep WR Steve Smith contained for the second straight game, as he caught just one pass for nine yards, and indeed Newton rarely tried to get the ball downfield. The one exception came just two plays after Benn's touchdown catch had made it 10-7 in the second quarter. With Carolina backed up inside its own 10, the Bucs brought a big blitz and left their cornerbacks in man coverage downfield. Newton stood in against the pressure and threw deep down the middle to WR Brandon LaFell, with E.J. Biggers in tight coverage. LaFell managed to leap higher than Biggers for the football, then landed on his feet and ran the rest of the way for a 91-yard score. Other than that play, Newton's longest completion on the day went for 11 yards.
Obviously, eight runs of more than 10 yards, including five of more than 20, made up for that lack of downfield passing and also allowed Carolina to control the clock for 33 of the game's 60 minutes. Despite getting bigger than usual contributions from the likes of Stroughter (4 catches for 52 yards), rookie RB Mossis Madu (62 combined rushing and receiving yards) and Kregg Lumpkin (62 combined yards), the Bucs couldn't unleash enough offensive firepower to keep up in the shootout.
The Panthers and Bucs got completely different results out of their respective opening possessions, and that didn't work in the visitors' favor. Newton drove the home team 80 yards on nine plays on the game's first march, never having to convert a third down. Most of it was on the ground, including a drive-opening 13-yard run by Stewart and a 14-yard dash by Williams. After a facemask penalty on DT Jovan Haye put the ball at Tampa Bay's eight, Williams avoided a diving DE Michael Bennett in the backfield and picked his way up the middle to the end zone for a 7-0 Panthers lead.
In contrast, the Bucs' first drive lasted one play, as Blount failed to get a handle on a first-down handoff and fumbled at his own 17. The ball rolled backwards and was recovered at the Bucs' eight. Tampa Bay's defense did come up with a nice stop after that turnover, forcing the Panthers to settle for Olindo Mare's 21-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead just six minutes into the game.
The Bucs went to a hurry-up no-huddle attack when they got the ball back but paradoxically ended up with their most time-consuming drive of the season. It covered 80 yards on 15 plays and took 9:20 to complete, including one third-down and one fourth-down conversion along the way. Freeman completed six of seven throws on the drive, including a 16-yarder to WR Preston Parker on third-and-16 just past midfield, and also succeeded on a fourth-and-one sneak at the Carolina six. On the next play, Benn hauled in a lob to the left edge of the end zone for a four-yard touchdown, though the Bucs had to use their challenge flag to get the score after it was initially ruled incomplete.
Unfortunately, Carolina answered immediately. Backed up to their own eight, the Panthers got out of trouble and much more with the longest passing play in franchise history. It was relatively well-defended by the Bucs, with good pressure on Newton and CB E.J. Biggers right on LaFell deep down the middle, but LaFell made a leaping catch over the defender and landed on his feet. He got back up to top speed right away and wasn't touched on his way to the end zone for a 91-yard score.
The Bucs once again mounted an extended drive in answer, though they had to settle for three points this time. Sammie Stroughter's leaping 29-yard catch converted an early third down and rookie RB Mossis Madu made several nifty plays out of the backfield to get the ball down to Carolina's 30. An offensive pass interference penalty on Winslow eventually killed the drive but ultra-reliable K Connor Barth banged home a 42-yarder.
The Panthers mounted one more extended drive before the end of the half, much of it on runs of 32 and 24 yards by Stewart. However, the Bucs' defense got another stop inside the 10-yard line, this one thanks to a hard tackle by LB Geno Hayes on WR Legedu Naanee just shy of the goal line. The Panthers initially lined up to go for it on fourth-and-goal but then called a timeout and reconsidered, sending in Mare for a 19-yarder and a 20-10 halftime lead.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
The Bucs' first drive of the second half, just like their opening possession, ended in a turnover. In this instance, Freeman tried to zip a pass in to Winslow down the left seam but it was tipped by a diving Anderson and intercepted by S Jonathan Nelson.
Nelson got the ball back to the Bucs' 32, and Newton started the drive with an option play, keeping it for a gain of six. After using a timeout, Newton shuttled a pass to TE Richie Brockel for four yards and a first down, and a pitch to Williams on the next play finished the drive as he shot through a seam for a 22-yard score.
Blount returned for the first time since the Bucs' initial offensive snap and pushed up the middle for a gain of three to start the next drive. A false start and Benn's unsuccessful attempt to make a dazzling diving catch downfield left the Bucs in a third-and-12 and a deep attempt to Williams was well-defended by CB Darius Butler. A booming 59-yard punt by Koenen and a great open-field tackle by LB Quincy Black did manage to push Carolina back to its own 24.
After a false start moved the ball back five yards, Stewart got them back with a sweep left. LB Mason Foster jumped a short pass on the next snap and might have had an interception if Newton, perhaps catching a glimpse of him, hadn't skipped the pass. On third-and-10, Bennett broke through for the Bucs' first sack, dropping Newton for a loss of eight.
A personal foul on Myron Lewis on the punt return took the ball back to the Bucs' 37. After Stocker was upended after a gain of just one, Blount barreled over left guard for eight yards and Freeman ran another successful sneak for a first down at the 48. The Bucs got tricky on the next snap and it appeared to work before a pair of penalties and a turnover turned it into a disaster. Freeman handed off out of the shotgun to WR Micheal Spurlock, who looked downfield and then threw back to Freeman out to the right. Since that pass was backward, Freeman could throw again and he did to Winslow open down the right numbers. Winslow turned to gain extra yardage but in the process fumbled while leaping over a Panther. The ball was recovered by Carolina at their 24 and a personal foul on Stocker moved it up to the 39.
The Panthers responded with an end-around to Smith that gained 23 yards, and Williams then found the left end for another 18. Three plays later, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-one at the 11 and chose to go for it. Stewart started out in the backfield but dashed out to the right and Newton hit him for the Panthers' fourth touchdown.
Freeman looked to Williams on the left side on each of the first two plays on the next drive, hitting him for 11 yards and then drawing a pass-interference flag out at the Bucs' 47. A short pass to WR Dezmon Briscoe got six more, and a dumpoff to Lumpkin made it third-and-one at the Carolina 44. The Bucs ran a play-action handoff to Blount and tried to hit Spurlock deep but the pass was overthrown. On fourth-and-one, Freeman took a shotgun snap but eventually threw incomplete under pressure.
Two plays later, Newton showed off his athleticism, faking a handoff and then keeping it to run around right tackle. An open-field move froze one Buc defender and nobody else was able to catch him before he ran 49 yards for the score.
It immediately got worse. Stroughter brought the ensuing kickoff out of the end zone but ran into a head-on collision with RB Josh Vaughan. The ball came loose and was recovered by CB Josh Thomas at the Bucs' eight. After switching sides to start the fourth period, Newton threw to Shockey, who reached the ball over the goal line for another touchdown.
After a touchback, Freeman operated out of the shotgun and converted a third-and-five with a short pass that Lumpkin turned into a 15-yard gain by shaking off a tackler. Martin was then flagged for pass interference on a downfield throw to Stroughter, and a release pass over the middle to Lumpkin got eight to the Carolina 22. An underneath pass to Williams gained 13 yards and made it first-and-goal at the four, and Lumpkin's first-down run came up a yard short. Freeman's first sneak attempt was marked inches short but he got it over the line by simply extending his arms on the next play. The Bucs went for two, though they had to do it from the seven after false-starting, and Freeman was dropped in the backfield before he could throw.
The Panthers brought in backup QB Derek Anderson and RB Josh Vaughan for the next drive and looked to run out the clock, giving it repeatedly to Vaughan. The Panthers got one first down but had to punt with seven minutes left in the game.
Freeman completed a series of underneath passes to start the next drive, including a 15-yarder to Stroughter, and Madu got it into Carolina territory with a 15-yard run. Freeman faced a third-and-15 three plays later after a sack shared by DT Jason Shirley and DT Frank Kearse. A pass in the flat to Winslow got half the needed distance, but Freeman's fourth-down toss in Williams' direction didn't hit the mark.
The Panthers were able to gain one first down on their next possession and therefore run out the clock. The Buccaneers fell to 4-11 with the defeat while Carolina improved to 6-9.
Game Notes: CB Ronde Barber played in the 224th regular-season game of his NFL career on Saturday, all of them with the Buccaneers. He is now tied with LB Derrick Brooks for the most games played in franchise history. Barber and Brooks are the only two players in team annals who have played at least 200 games for the franchise. … The Panthers now lead the all-time series with the Buccaneers, 14-9, though their mark at home is only 7-5. The Panthers have a 13-7 edge since the two teams joined the NFC South together in 2002. … Rookie TE Luke Stocker started in a two-TE set for the Buccaneers and recorded a career high three receptions for 14 yards. … TE Kellen Winslow led the Bucs with six catches for 63 yards, giving him 211 receptions in his three years as a Buccaneer. That moved him past Ron Hall on the Buccaneers' all-time receptions chart and gave him the second most in team history among tight ends. Winslow trails only recent Ring of Honor inductee Jimmie Giles, who finished his Buc career with 279 catches.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: QB Rudy Carpenter, S Larry Asante, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, G Derek Hardman, T James Lee, DT Brian Price and DE Albert Haynesworth. Price and Haynesworth were out due to injury.
The Panthers declared these seven inactives: QB Jimmy Clausen, K Adi Kunalic, WR Seyi Ajirotutu, S Charles Godfrey, LB Omar Gaither, C Jeff Byers and DE Eric Norwood. Godfrey was out due to injury.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, WR Preston Parker sustained a head injury in the second quarter and did not return.
For the Panthers, WR Legedu Naanee suffered a foot injury in the third quarter and did not return.