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NFL | CAROLINA PANTHERS 31, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 13

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Above .500 ... finally: Panthers rout Buccaneers, 31-13

PANTHERS_BUCS_29
Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers (99) defensive tackle Kawann Short and (21) safety Mike Mitchell make the tackle on Tampa Bay Buccaneers (25) running back Mike James during second quarter action at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fl. on Thursday, October 24, 2013. The Panthers led the Buccaneers at the half 14-6. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Poll

Poll: Will the 2013 Carolina Panthers end up a playoff team after all?

TAMPA, Fla. The last time the Panthers had a winning record, George W. Bush was still in the White House, Ron Rivera was in his first year as San Diego’s defensive coordinator and quarterback Cam Newton was a sophomore at Florida.

Yeah, it has been a while.

Playing for the second time in five days, Newton stayed hot, Tampa Bay stayed cold and the Panthers broke through the .500 barrier for the first time in five years.

Newton rushed for a season-high 50 yards and accounted for three touchdowns to lead the Panthers to a 31-13 win over the hapless Buccaneers on Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium, which featured large swaths of empty seats.

The Panthers (4-3) won their third in a row and have a winning record for the first time during the regular season since Week 17 in 2008, a span of 70 games.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been in this position,” said left tackle Jordan Gross, one of nine players remaining from the ’08 team. “Our next game’s in November against another division team (Atlanta). We put ourselves in a position where we’re in the mix, and that’s great. Guys in this locker room deserve that. The young guys that have never felt this deserve it. Coach Rivera deserves it.

“The thing that I love is that nobody around here thinks that we finished anything.”

The Bucs (0-7) have lost 12 of their past 13 games, dating to last season, under embattled, second-year coach Greg Schiano. On a day when the Bucs hosted the league’s only game, Schiano awoke to find a “Fire Schiano” billboard in Tampa.

But he’ll get little empathy from the Panthers, who will take the weekend off before hosting the Falcons on Nov. 3.

“To come on the road and win on a short week and just handle our business is what good teams should do,” said tight end Greg Olsen, whose 1-yard touchdown catch started the scoring.

“Games in the past we would have let them hang close and made it difficult,” Olsen added. “But I think this is starting to show a new step that we’ve taken where we come out businesslike, move forward and get ready for the next game. That’s what the good teams do.”

Newton came into Thursday’s game on a roll, having posted two of his three highest single-game completion percentages and passer ratings in victories against Minnesota and St. Louis.

He had another efficient game against the Bucs, completing 23 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns and running for another score.

In his last three games, Newton has completed 77.3 percent of his passes (58 of 75) for 667 yards and six touchdowns, with no interceptions. The Panthers have had no turnovers during that span.

“I think you might have quoted me as saying, ‘When Cam’s hot, we’re hot,’ earlier in the year. I think that’s more true now than ever,” Gross said. “The thing that’s great about him is I wouldn’t even necessarily say he’s been hot. He’s just been good – smart with the ball, running for first downs, diving on the ground, not taking as many hits.

“He’s just managing the game really, really well. I think he knows he doesn’t have to do it all.”

Newton’s performance was in stark contrast to his showing in the Panthers’ 36-7 loss to the Giants during a Thursday night game last season, when he finished with three interceptions and a career-low 40.6 passer rating.

The Panthers got a little sloppy at the end of Thursday’s game, failing to recover an onsides kick and committing three defensive penalties during the Bucs’ final drive. Giving the Bucs an extra possession also led to defensive end Charles Johnson’s groin injury.

Johnson, who had two sacks, said he was disappointed to get hurt but hopeful he can play against the Falcons. Johnson wasn’t ready to celebrate the Panthers being above .500.

“It’s good, but we’re not dwelling on that. We’re on to the next game,” Johnson said. “We’ve got Atlanta. That’s a big week. That’s a big game.”

Newton felt the same way.

“It’s a relief in numerous reasons, but being (above) .500 is just a small percentage of it,” Newton said. “We’ve got to keep meshing as a team, keep building off and keep getting momentum in the upcoming weeks because we’re about to hit the meat of our schedule and we’re going to need every single ounce of energy that we’ll have.”

The Panthers led 14-6 at the half and could have been up by more. Leading 14-3, a streaking Ted Ginn Jr. had a perfectly thrown pass by Newton go through his hands.

Newton was 13 of 18 for 149 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

After forcing a three-and-out on the Bucs’ first possession, the Panthers put together an impressive 15-play, 70-yard touchdown drive to go up 7-0 on Newton’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Olsen.

The Panthers overcame a personal foul on fullback Mike Tolbert early in the nearly nine-minute drive. They also converted three third downs, including two on Newton runs – a sneak and a 16-yard scramble on third-and-12.

The Bucs answered with a 47-yard field goal by Rian Lindell on their next drive to cut the lead to 7-3 with 1:24 left in first quarter. It was the first points allowed by the Panthers’ defense in the first quarter this season.

The Panthers scored again on their second drive, going 80 yards in six plays before DeAngelo Williams’ 12-yard touchdown run. Williams eluded two tacklers on his first touchdown run of the season.

It was only the second rushing touchdown allowed by the Bucs, who entered the game tied with Baltimore for the fewest allowed.

Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon had two negative-yardage plays in the first half as a result of bad snaps by backup center Ted Larsen. The Bucs shuffled their line because of the absence of guard Carl Nicks, one of three Tampa Bay players diagnosed with MRSA this season.

Larsen’s second poor snap forced the Bucs to settle for a 48-yard field goal by Lindell to pull the Bucs to 14-6 with 4:03 left in the second quarter.

Newton’s 6-yard scramble for a touchdown increased the Panthers’ lead to 21-6 midway through the third quarter.

“We got licked,” Schiano said. “My hat’s off to Carolina. They played better than we did. They coached better than we did. That was the result.”

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