Newton, Panthers slip past Bucs, into playoffs
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers needed a bounce to go their way.
That bounce literally came at the end of their Sunday afternoon game.
Quarterback Cam Newton picked up a dropped snap and ran for a 2-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left, lifting the Panthers to a playoff-clinching, 22-19 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium.
“I almost gave it up,” Newton said. “It was a perfect snap. ... I’m just happy it wasn’t a pass play — if it was, the offensive line would have been coming back.”
Carolina converted a fourth down on the play prior to the touchdown, needing 1 yard after the Buccaneers jumped offside. Jonathan Stewart ran 1 yard, setting up Newton’s game-winning run. It was a 10-play, 59-yard drive.
“When we needed to drive the ball down, we did,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.
The Panthers (11-4) remain tied with the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFC South. Carolina would hold a wild-card spot in the playoffs unless it wins next week at Atlanta while the Saints lose at Tampa Bay.
Damiere Byrd’s 103-yard kickoff return was one of the highlights for the Panthers.
Newton completed 16 of 25 passes for 160 yards with one interception. He also rushed for a team-high 52 yards on 14 carries.
Newton’s quick recovery for the winning points didn’t surprise his teammates.
“He’s not like most quarterbacks,” Carolina center Ryan Kalil said. “Fortunately for us, it bounced that way.”
Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston threw for 367 yards and one touchdown, completing 21 of 27 passes without an interception.
Winston’s third fumble came on the first snap after Carolina’s go-ahead touchdown. Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers recovered to seal the outcome.
“We’re doing a lot of good stuff,” said Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter, whose team lost another close game. “Our defense in that first half was unbelievable. ... The same stuff wins football games every week. It’s the same stuff, and we’re coming out on the short end.”
The Buccaneers (4-11) went ahead 16-12 on Winston’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Bobo Wilson on their first possession of the second half.
Carolina closed within 16-15 on Graham Gano’s 30-yard field goal on a drive extended by pass interference on a fake punt.
Bucs kicker Patrick Murray’s fourth field goal of the game came from 26 yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter, extending Tampa Bay’s lead to 19-15.
Murray missed wide right from 51 yards out with three minutes left.
Koetter defended the decision for the long field goal even though the miss resulted in good field position for Carolina.
“It puts you up seven,” Koetter said. “He wasn’t short. He had the distance.”
The Panthers led 12-9 at halftime despite the Buccaneers holding a huge statistical edge.
Tampa Bay built a 225-78 advantage in total offense before the break. The Buccaneers ended the half with Murray’s 21-yard field goal.
Byrd’s kickoff return, which was the longest in franchise history, came after the Buccaneers briefly had momentum. The extra-point kick was blocked by William Gholston.
Tampa Bay had a 70-yard pass play from Winston to Chris Godwin, but it resulted in only Murray’s 41-yard field goal to tie the score at 6-6 with 2:58 left in the first half.
The teams each had a first-quarter field goal. Gano converted from 25 yards out after a Winston fumble was recovered and returned to the Tampa Bay 33-yard line.
Murray’s 31-yarder came at the end of a 63-yard drive.
The Buccaneers reached the Carolina 18 early in the second quarter before Winston’s fumble.
Newton was shaken up and exited for one play following a short second-down keeper that took the ball to the Tampa Bay 10 with 9:05 remaining in the second quarter.
Derek Anderson replaced Newton, throwing an incompletion before Gano’s 28-yard field goal gave the Panthers a 6-3 lead.
Evans finished with 107 receiving yards on six catches.
NOTES: Carolina was without LB Thomas Davis, who served an NFL suspension for a hit last week against Green Bay WR Davante Adams. ... LB Shaq Thompson was back for Carolina after a two-game absence caused by a foot injury. ... Panthers WR Russell Shepard, who left last week’s game with a shoulder injury, was on the inactive list. ... RG Evan Smith drew the start for Tampa Bay, filling the spot held by OL J.R. Sweezy, who was one of five Buccaneers to go on injured reserve during the past week. ... The Panthers won 17-3 against Tampa Bay in the first meeting of the season in October. ... Carolina goes to Atlanta for the regular-season finale next week. ... The Buccaneers finish the season next week at home against New Orleans.