If the phrase “missed opportunities” has been the summation of the Panthers’ 2016 season, it was on full display during a 17-16 loss in Carolina’s finale at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Coach Ron Rivera echoed as much after the game, just three sentences into his news conference.
“We missed some opportunities. Some tremendous opportunities,” he said.
Although Carolina stood firm on a third down in the red zone to hold Tampa Bay to a field goal, and struck back with a 2-yard punch-in by running back Jonathan Stewart, the game got sluggish in a hurry as each team gifted the other ample chances to capitalize.
Rookie James Bradberry kept the momentum going with an acrobatic pick (his second of the year) late in the first quarter and was hassled out of bounds at the Tampa Bay 16.
The Panthers followed Bradberry’s big play with a blown assignment up front that led to a sack on quarterback Cam Newton, and got pushed back to a long third-and-29.
To add to that particular missed opportunity, kicker Graham Gano was wide right on the resulting 45-yard field goal attempt.
Wes Horton stripped quarterback Jameis Winston on the Buccaneers’ first drive of the second quarter, and rookie Vernon Butler recovered to bring back the Panthers’ momentum.
Once again, Newton was sacked (this time on third down), and Carolina had to punt.
Wide receiver Philly Brown got outmuscled on a deep pass from Newton midway through the second quarter and Keith Tandy came down with the pick.
The Bucs had a chance to score late in the half, but kicker Roberto Aguayo missed a 46-yard field goal. Gano missed a 58-yard field goal attempt wide left to end the half.
Tampa Bay corner Brent Grimes picked off Newton on the second play of the second half and took it to the end zone to put the Buccaneers up 10-7.
Gano squeezed a 54-yarder through the uprights to tie the game midway through the third period. As the Panthers drove and the final seconds of the period ticked away, Newton threw his third pick of the day, and the second deep ball was intercepted by Tandy.
On the following Bucs drive, defensive end Kony Ealy sacked Winston to hold Tampa to a field goal, which was then blocked (apparently by Kawann Short) and recovered by Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson. The following drive resulted in a missed 36-yard attempt by Gano.
Winston got the go-ahead touchdown with a pass to receiver Mike Evans to bump the Bucs up 17-10 with 3 minutes, 13 seconds left to play.
Newton connected with receiver Kelvin Benjamin for a 5-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left, but the two-point conversion attempt failed as tight end Greg Olsen slipped on his route.
Three who mattered
Rookies: Bradberry and Butler were key in making big plays early for the Panthers, with a pick and a fumble recovery, respectively. Unfortunately for them, Carolina’s offense could not respond with points either time.
Graham Gano: Gano missed two field goals in the first half (from 46 and 58 yards), which put him at seven misses on the season – a season-high while in Carolina. He made a 54-yarder in the third quarter to tie the game at 10. He then missed a 36-yarder in the fourth quarter that would have been the go-ahead score.
Cam Newton: Newton was perfect on his first four passes of the game but finished 18 for 32 with 237 yards, a touchdown and three picks, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Rivera said after the game that Newton argued to stay in when coaches were ready to send in backup Joe Webb.
“I thought Cam Newton was about as courageous as it gets,” he said. “He didn’t want to come out, he tried to make some throws that he probably shouldn’t have. But that’s who he is. He’s a competitive man, he wants to win.”
Rivera also said Newton aggravated the shoulder that has been bothering him for several weeks.
“He doesn’t use it as a crutch, so if he doesn’t then I’m not gonna.”
▪ The Panthers wore “BD” decals on the backs of their helmets to honor the memory of former special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, who died last week after a courageous fight with cancer. He was 68.
▪ Backup quarterback Derek Anderson (illness) and defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring, foot) were inactive. Linebacker Jeremy Cash, linebacker Luke Kuechly, offensive tackle Dan France, defensive tackle Paul Soliai and running back Cameron Artis-Payne were healthy scratches.
▪ Free agent Mario Addison extended his season sack total to 9 1/2 in the third quarter. He leads the Panthers in sacks.
▪ Carolina went 75 yards on its opening drive, but was limited to 29 yards over the next four series – all before halftime.
▪ After two defensive takeaways and one special teams takeaway, the Panthers offense only scored three points in response.
▪ Prior to Gano’s missed 45-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter, several seconds of loud, echoing feedback permeated the stadium that sounded like it was coming from the official stadium audio system. The officials took a timeout, but when that was over the noise continued through Gano’s kick.
▪ Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David sacked Newton twice for a total loss of 22 yards. Both came on third down. He also brought Newton down on a designed run late in the fourth quarter for a 2-yard loss.
▪ Despite playing without three starters, the Panthers defense only gave up 10 points to the Buccaneers, and just three points until the last 3:13 of the game.
▪ In the third quarter, Winston became the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in his first two seasons in the league.
They said it
“Me and football got a love-hate relationship. Right now we’re not on good terms.” – Newton, on his slump season. He later said he was joking.
“At the end of the day, we are what our record says we are. I can tell you without a doubt that we have to be better, and we will be better. I understand the character of the men on this team. And I know we’re going to come back this offseason, and we’re gonna compete.” –Linebacker Thomas Davis, on Carolina finishing the season 6-10.