If you are playing one of the worst teams in the NFL, you have two options.
No.1: Play down to that team’s level. Look bad. Get yourself in major trouble. Lose.
No.2: Make that team pay. Show everyone why you’re a lot better. Win by efficiently taking care of business.
The Carolina Panthers chose door No. 2 Thursday night, blasting 0-7 Tampa Bay 31-13, and moving over the .500 mark in the regular season for the first time since late 2008.
The Panthers (4-3) should have won this one and they did. The only jarring note was standout defensive end Charles Johnson limping off the field with a groin injury late in the game. If Johnson is out for any length of time, that’s a blow.
But can you imagine if the Panthers hadn’t won this game? A radio station in Tampa bought billboards saying “Fire Schiano” in reference to Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. But if the Panthers had lost this one, the drumbeat to fire coach Ron Rivera instead would have certainly sounded in some Carolina hills once again.
Carolina caught the Buccaneers at a good time, yes, but the Panthers still had to perform. And they did, led by quarterback Cam Newton, who is on the best three-game run of his career. He’s making smart decisions, he’s running when he should and he’s throwing with extreme accuracy. The Panthers are 3-0 over their past three for many reasons – including a favorable schedule – but no reason is bigger than No.1.
“Cam is the most comfortable he’s ever been,” Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “I think he knows now that he doesn’t have to do it all.”
But there were lots of other reasons for this win, too. Rivera was one. Give the coach credit – he has truly become a disciple of going for it on fourth-and-1 after two-plus years of conservatism. Rivera went for it once again Thursday – up 14-6 in the third quarter, disdaining a sure field goal – and was rewarded when the Panthers eventually scored a touchdown on the drive.
Less heralded men came to play, too. Colin Jones is a low-profile special-teamer for Carolina, but what an impressive play he had in the third quarter. Jones first forced a fair catch by beating his man downfield. Then, when the punt was dropped, Jones outmuscled two other Buccaneers for the ball and a fumble recovery. That recovery resulted in the Panthers’ fourth TD, the one that truly put the game away for Carolina.
I didn’t think Mike Glennon, the former N.C. State quarterback now starting as a rookie for Tampa Bay, was bad at all. He didn’t get a lot of help, with a couple of key drops and two terrible shotgun snaps that undid drives.
But the Panthers’ defense was better. The bedrock of this team from the beginning, the defense came into the game allowing 13.8 points per game and this time gave up slightly less than that. It wasn’t spectacular defense this time – cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was furious that he got his hands on four balls and intercepted none of them – but it was good enough when it mattered.
“I’d give us about a B-minus,” defensive end Greg Hardy said.
The “crowd” in Tampa, such as it was, was late to arrive and early to leave. It was hard to blame them. Schiano almost certainly will get fired – and it may happen sooner rather than later. Tampa Bay was 7-9 like Carolina in 2012, but now the Bucs are a befuddled, disgruntled mess.
That’s not Carolina’s problem, though, and the Panthers didn’t allow it to be. They simply took advantage of a soft spot in their schedule with authority.
That schedule is about to toughen up, but for the moment the Panthers can enjoy the fact that they are finally over .500 and have a quarterback who is playing exactly the way he should.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been in this position,” Gross said.
Now they have to stay there. A loss to Atlanta on Nov.3 would drop the Panthers back to 4-4 at the season’s midway point.
“Can’t go backward,” said Munnerlyn, who is over .500 for the first time in a Panthers career that started in 2009. “Not when we’re just starting to move forward.”