The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to Charlotte looking to play spoiler in the three-way NFC South title hunt. Instead the Carolina Panthers stayed alive with a comeback 19-17 victory and now they may be looking for help from the Buccaneers in two weeks.
Despite getting their second-highest total of the season from the rushing game, with 151 yards,, Tampa Bay's offense struggled to find a rhythm, particularly in the second half, as a 10-9 halftime lead slipped away. The visitors remained very much in the game despite a final yardage disadvantage of 390-287 and a 37-23 time-of-possession deficit but couldn't quite get out of their own way at the critical moments.
The game's decisive juncture came early in the fourth quarter, when a Josh McCown incompletion was challenged and overturned, making it a fumble that the Panthers recovered at their own 27. On the next play, with the Bucs trailing by just six, LB Orie Lemon intercepted a deflected pass to seemingly create a scoring opportunity, only to have it erased by a roughing-the-passer penalty on DE Larry English, whose hand raked along Derek Anderson's helmet after the throw. Carolina proceeded to take the ball into Buccaneer territory before CB Alterraun Verner jumped a route on third down and appeared to have an interception, only to lose control of the ball as he hit the ground. The Panthers were able to kick a 45-yard field goal to make it a two-score game with 8:31 to play.
That proved critical as the Buccaneers followed with a gutsy 80-yard touchdown drive, capped by McCown's 16-yard TD scramble on which he flipped over the final Panther defender into the end zone. The Bucs were still trailing by two after that score and were only able to get the ball back with 23 seconds left at their own 10.
"At that point in the game, where we were on the clock, I was just trying to get everything I could to get us in the end zone," said McCown. "I knew it was going to be tough. Time wasn't permitting then, but we knew when we got in the red zone we were going to have to run the ball because they play so soft and they take things away. Once I stepped up, I thought, 'I need to get in because we need to hurry up and get the score.' Guys did a good job of blocking, allowing me to get in."
Gano's 45-yarder was Carolina's fourth field goal in five attempts, as Tampa Bay's defense repeatedly turned away the Panthers' offense in scoring territory. The Panthers punted just three times all day, and not once in the first half, but their only touchdown drive was a two-play, two-yard march of a Josh McCown fumble early in the third quarter.
"That killed us," said QB Josh McCown. "It killed us. We had a screen going and we'd had success on a couple screens earlier. They had some pressure and I stepped up and was going to try to 'dirt' it at [Charles Sims'] feet because we didn't have anything on the screen, and they got to me as I was trying to throw it away. It's unfortunate and it turned the game. Can't let that happen."
Doug Martin ran for a season-high 96 yards on 14 carries and rookie RB Charles Sims added 34 yards on the ground and another 45 through the air. Rookie WR Mike Evans turned in another dazzling touchdown catch early in the game but otherwise McCown and the Bucs' passing attack could get little going. McCown finished with 154 yards on 13-of-28 passing, with one TD and one interception on a desperation pass at the end of regulation. The WR duo of Evans and Vincent Jackson – which turned in 204 yards and two touchdowns a week earlier in Detroit – combined to get just 83 yards on eight catches, much of that by Jackson on that final touchdown drive.
In the end, turnovers made the difference, as they often do. Carolina won the turnover battle, 3-1, and scored 10 points off two of those takeaways. Tampa Bay's only takeaway was a critical one, however, as CB Alterraun Verner forced a Jonathan Stewart fumble inside the Bucs' 10-yard line that was recovered by DT Akeem Spence. That was once again a touchdown opportunity the Bucs' defense turned away, as it did most of the day.
"We don't want them to get those long drives like that, but once our backs are against the wall it's time for us to buckle down, and that's what we did," said LB Lavonte David, who contributed 12 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit, a pass defensed and a forced fumble. "For the most part that happened – four field goals – so hat's off to the guys for being able to play team defense and hold them to those field goals.
S Bradley McDougald led the defense with a career-high 15 tackles, while Verner added five tackles, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. LB Danny Lansanah added the first 1.5 sacks of his career.
"It was a tough loss, a hard-fought football game," said David. "I think the guys were playing hard, but that's the story of our season. We just fell short today."
The Bucs took a 10-9 lead into the half largely thanks to stingy defense in and around the red zone. The Panthers had 249 first-half yards, didn't punt before halftime and controlled the ball for 21 of the game's first 30 minutes. However, the Bucs made them settle for four Gano field goal attempts, three of which were successful.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers had just four first-half possessions but scored on two of them, taking their first possession 80 yards for a touchdown and adding a two-minute drill for a field goal just before the intermission. Martin set up Evans' eight-yard TD catch with a 63-yard run, while three screen passes to Sims made up the bulk of the 50-yard drive that set up Patrick Murray's 48-yard field goal.
The Bucs had deferred after winning the game-opening coin toss, but as has frequently been the case in 2014, getting the ball to start the second half didn't prove to be an advantage. In fact, in this case, it was a disaster, as McCown was sacked near the goal line by DE Charles Johnson, creating a fumble that DT Kawann Short covered at the Bucs' two-yard line. Two plays later, Anderson gave the home team a 16-10 lead with a two-yard TD pass to WR Jerricho Cotchery.
"The defense played great after the initial drive, even stopping them [on that drive] and holding them to three," said McCown. "The defense fought hard and played hard and we gave up a short field to those guys. The third quarter has killed us in a lot of games. We don't come out like we should and we've got to be better. We found ourselves in long distances with penalties and some missed opportunities. We have to be better in the third. That's what hurt us – we didn't tilt the field."
The Panthers got creative right off the bat, running WR Philly Brown on an end-around on the game's first snap for 17 yards. A crisp pass through traffic to Olsen got 13 to get close to midfield and Stewart's first run of the day was greeted with a huge hole at the line, going for 15 more. Another 10-yard run by Stewart put it at the Bucs' 29, but Anderson bobbled the next snap and lost seven yards. However, Benjamin made an impressive leaping catch on the next snap and held on despite landing hard on his back. The result was a first down at the Bucs' 19. Moments later, the Panthers faced their first third down of the game, needing 10 yards after a false start erased a five-yard Stewart run. Anderson still moved the sticks with a 12-yard pass to Olsen through traffic. That made it first-and-goal at the seven, though a false start, a nice tackle of Stewart by CB Alterraun Verner and an incompletion made it third-and-goal from the 11. The Panthers had to settle for Graham Gano's 29-yard field goal after a third-down incompletion.
After a touchback, the Bucs started their first drive with a six-man line and a pair of runs by Martin. The first gained only a yard but Martin broke free on the second one for 63 yards to the Panthers' 16. A sharp slant pass to Jackson on second down made it third-and-two at the eight. Rather than going for the first down, the Bucs went for it all and Evans made yet another dazzling toe-tapping catch of a fade to the right edge of the end zone.
Cotchery got the Panthers moving on the next drive with an 18-yard catch down the left seam on which he held on despite a very hard shot from S Bradley McDougald. An Anderson scramble two plays later made it first down at the Carolina 47, and a sharp sideline toss to Olsen got 13 more. An 11-yard burst over left guard by RB Fozzy Whitaker made it first down at the Bucs' 29, but a holding call on the Panthers followed. A deep pass down the right sideline to Brown was incomplete but Gerald McCoy was hurt on the play. Two plays later, on third-and-12, Anderson got the ball to Anderson through traffic near the Bucs' five-yard line but Lansanah was able to knock the ball loose. The Panthers once again settled for a Gano three-pointer, this one from 49 yards out.
Once again using the jumbo line, the Bucs started their second drive with two more Martin runs but gained only four total yards as the first quarter came to an end. McCown's third-down pass was tipped away by CB Bene Benwikere and the Panthers took over again at their own 37 after a 39-yard Michael Koenen punt. A Benjamin crossing route two plays later put the ball just over midfield and gave Carolina a new set of downs. Strong tackles by Verner and Michael Johnson put the Panthers into a third-and-10 at the Bucs' 33 and outstanding coverage by Verner on a third-down out in Brown's direction forced Carolina into another field goal try. This time, Gano missed from 50 yards and the Bucs held on to their one-point lead.
They also got the ball in great field position after the miss and immediately got into Carolina territory on Martin's 13-yard burst up the gut. Two more Martin runs made it third-and-one at Carolina's 37. Martin powered through a tackle by LB Thomas Davis to just fall for enough yards. Rookie T Kevin Pamphile was hurt on the play. McCown's five-yard scramble took the ball to the Carolina 30, but a deep ball to Evans failed to connect. On third-and-five, McCown had the ball swatted from his hand by DE Kony Ealy and the resulting sack took the Bucs out of field goal range. Koenen punted down to the Carolina 12-yard line, where it was fair caught.
Anderson got the Panthers out of that hole with precise passes to Olsen and Benjamin for eight and 19 yards. Three plays later, a simple slant to Benjamin converted a third-and-three and moved the ball across midfield. Two Stewart runs up the middle made it first down at the Bucs' 30. A sack for no yards by Lansanah and another Anderson scrambled made it third-and-six as the two-minute warning arrived. After the break, Olsen caught a pass right at the sticks to keep the drive moving, but the Panthers soon faced third-and-10 at the 20. After calling a timeout, the Panthers dialed up a vertical seam route to Olsen but the pass was overthrown. Gano came in to give Carolina a 9-7 halftime lead with a 38-yard field goal.
Two catch-and-runs by rookie RB Charles Sims picked up 26 yards and helped moved the ball across midfield. McCown nearly found WR Louis Murphy on a seam route downfield but the pass was incomplete and Murphy took a shot to the knee that sent him to the locker room early. A perfect screen pass to Sims on third-and-10 from the Carolina 49 picked up 19 yards to set up a 48-yard field goal try by Patrick Murray. The rookie kicker drilled it down the middle with yards to spare, leaving just two seconds on the clock.
The Bucs got the ball to start the second half but that didn't prove to be an advantage. A false start helped put the offense into a third-and-15, and McCown was then sacked inside the five-yard line by DE Charles Johnson. McCown lost the ball and it was covered by DT Kawann Short. Two plays later, Anderson zipped a quick pass into the hands of Cotchery for a two-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers a 16-10 lead.
The Bucs' second drive went backward, as well, and the Bucs had to punt after a three-and-out. The Panthers needed just one play after the punt to get back into Tampa Bay territory, as Benjamin took a crossing route 21 yards to Tampa Bay's 43. Another perfect pass into a zone by Anderson to Cotchery picked up 16 more and a 10-yard run by Stewart made it first down at the 12. Two plays later, however, Verner forced a fumble by Stewart and Spence recovered for the Bucs at their own eight.
Again, however, Tampa Bay's offense couldn't move the ball, with another false start increasing the level of difficulty. The Bucs eventually punted from the original line of scrimmage, which put Carolina back in possession at the Bucs' 44. This one started out better for the Bucs, with Lansanah and Smith combining on a four-yard sack and Johnthan Banks breaking up a pass intended for Benjamin. A short pass to Cotchery came up five yards short and Bobby Rainey caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' eight.
Again, the Bucs went three-and-out, with a third-and-two slant to Evans failed to connect. Brenton Bersin took the punt that followed across midfield back to the Bucs' 48. LB Lavonte David contributed a tackle for loss and a pass defensed over the next three snaps, but Olsen caught a 14-yard pass in between to get to the Bucs' 35. On third-and-10, David blitzed and was able to trip up Anderson for a sack, forcing another punt.
After the punt was fair caught at the seven, Sims took a second-half draw to the left sideline and got around the pursuit for a gain of 18 to the 25. A scrambling 16-yard strike to Jackson got another 16, and Sims found the edge again for 10 yards two plays later. That made it first-and-10 at the Carolina 47, and two Martin runs for a total of two yards brought the third quarter to a close. After the two teams switched sides, McCown tried to throw on third-and-eight but his arm was hit during the delivery by blitzing S Roman Harper, resulting in a harmless floater over the middle.
The Panthers challenged the ruling of the play, however, and it was reversed to a fumble that somehow went forward all the way to the Carolina 27, where it was recovered by the home team. On the next play, LB Orie Lemon managed to intercept a pass that deflected off two players, but the turnover was erased by a roughing-the-passer call on DE Larry English. That made it first down for the Panthers at their own 38, and two plays later they converted a third-and-nine with a short pass to Brown on the left side. On the next third down, at the Bucs' 27, Verner cut in front of Brown and nearly intercepted the pass but couldn't quite hold on. That allowed Gano to kick a 45-yarder to put the home team up by nine with eight and a half minutes to go.
After a touchback, McCown threw two short passes to Jackson, who held on after hard hits for a total of 15 yards. Jackson caught another ball on the right sideline for a first down at the Bucs' 46, and two plays later McCown escaped a near-sack and found Jackson again over the middle for 18 yards to the Carolina 38. McCown went to an unexpected target two plays later, finding WR Russell Shepard on the right sideline, and Shepard escaped a tackle to get all the way down to the 15. McCown ran it in from 16 yards out three plays later, eluding one tackler at the five-yard line and then diving over another to get into the end zone.**
Photos from the first half of Buccaneers vs. Panthers.
- The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive before Sunday's game: WR Robert Herron, WR Solomon Patton, S Major Wright, LB Mason Foster, T Anthony Collins, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins and DT Clinton McDonald. Patton, Wright, Foster, Seferian-Jenkins and McDonald were out due to injury.
- Carolina's seven inactive players were QB Cam Newton, CB James Dockery, RB DeAngelo Williams, S Robert Lester, T David Foucault, G Amini Silatolu and DT Micanor Regis. Newton, Williams and Silatolu were out due to injury.
- RB Doug Martin ripped off a 63-yard run on the Bucs' second play from scrimmage Sunday. That was the longest play from scrimmage, run or pass, for Tampa Bay in 2014. It was Martin's longest run since he had touchdown runs of 67 and 70 yards at Oakland on Nov. 4, 2012.
- WR Mike Evans caught his 11th touchdown pass of the season at the end of the Buccaneers' first drive. That allowed him to tie the Buccaneers' single-season record in that category, both for rookies and all players. Evans equaled the mark set by Mike Williams during his 2010 rookie campaign.
- Evans' touchdown completed an 80-yard drive and marked the first time since Week Four at Pittsburgh that the Buccaneers took their opening possession for seven points. It was Tampa Bay's longest game-opening drive since another 80-yarder against Buffalo on Dec. 8, 2013.
- LB Jason Williams played in his first game as a Buccaneer after signing with the team on Tuesday. Williams, who played 11 games for the Panthers this season before being released, had two stops inside the 20-yard line on the Bucs' first two kickoffs of the game.
Photos from the second half of Buccaneers vs. Panthers.