Sometimes, you let the guests hang around too long.
Sunday, that almost happened to the Carolina Panthers against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium.
But needing a touchdown in the final minute to clinch an NFC playoff berth, the Panthers got a 2-yard, bounce-it-and-score-anyway scoring run from Cam Newton with 35 seconds to play for a 22-19 victory over the Buccaneers.
That came one play after a fourth-down conversion run by Jonathan Stewart that required a measurement but gave the Panthers first and goal at the 2 with 39 seconds to play.
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Carolina had taken possession with three minutes to play, trailing by four, after Tampa Bay kicker Patrick Murray’s missed field goal from 51 yards.
Newton’s touchdown saved the Panthers, who came into Sunday in control of their playoff destiny but let a Bucs team that has clinched last place in the NFC South stay in it.
“We’ve got to be at our best at this time of the year,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s the little things that we didn’t do very well.”
Sunday was a struggle.
After a field goal by Murray tied the game at 6, Damiere Byrd’s 103-yard kickoff return looked like a spark. But Graham Gano’s extra point was blocked, leaving the lead at 12-6.
The ensuing drive saw Adam Humphries outjump Kurt Coleman for a 36-yard reception to the Carolina 5, then ended in a third Murray field goal, cutting Carolina’s lead to 12-9 at halftime.
Then, on the Panthers’ first drive of the second half, Brenton Bersin bobbled what would have been a first-down catch deep in Bucs territory, and Kwon Alexander intercepted. His 28-yard return gave Tampa Bay the ball at Carolina’s 49.
Winston’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Bobo Wilson gave Tampa Bay its first lead, 16-12.
Carolina cut it to 16-15 with 4:49 to play in the third quarter, on Gano’s 30-yard field goal.
Another Tampa Bay field goal, this one from 26 yards, stretched the Tampa Bay lead to 19-15 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
A sack on Carolina’s next drive took the Panthers out of field-goal range, and Michael Palardy’s punt pinned Tampa Bay at its 5.
After offsetting penalties gave the Bucs another shot on third and long, a 30-yard completion to Mike Evans, Tampa’s sixth play of 25 or more yards, went for a first down at Tampa’s 35 with 7:16 to play.
That allowed the Bucs to run four more minutes off the clock before Murray’s 51-yard field-goal attempt went wide right.
Carolina got the ball at their 41 with three minutes to play, trailing by 4 with an NFC playoff berth on the line.
And Newton came through.
The Panthers travel to Atlanta for a New Year’s Eve game against Atlanta. A Carolina victory and a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay in Week 17 would give the Panthers the NFC South title.
Three who mattered
Cam Newton: No matter what else he did, he ran for the winning touchdown in the final minute.
Damiere Byrd: His 103-yard kickoff return, a franchise record, drew the biggest cheer of the day from the Carolina crowd.
Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay’s quarterback handled the Carolina blitz well, completing 21 of 27 passes for 367 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked four times, but avoided the rush enough to hurt the Panthers repeatedly. He also fumbled three times, all recovered by Carolina.
▪ Newton appeared to trip on his own on the final play of the Panthers’ first drive, and his stomp on the sideline as he left the field suggested he thought he should be in the end zone, not down at the 7. Field goal, not touchdown, was the result.
▪ Down 16-12, Carolina got a pass interference on a fake-punt pass by Palardy that gave Carolina a first down at the Tampa Bay 46. The Panthers ended up with a field goal. When you have to pull out a fake punt to beat the Bucs ...
▪ Some of the tackling by the Panthers left some question as to which team had something to play for on Sunday.
▪ Wes Horton’s strip sack on Tampa Bay’s first series, with the fumble recovered by Bryan Cox Jr., led to a 25-yard Gano field goal and a 3-0 Carolina lead. Murray’s 31-yarder on the ensuing Bucs drive tied the score with 2:24 to play in the first quarter.
▪ Lavonte David gave Newton a shot to the, well, lower body on a second-quarter drive, and after a third-down incompletion with Newton on the sideline, the Panthers had to settle, again, for a field goal and a 6-3 Panthers lead.
▪ Mario Addison split a sack with Star Lotulelei in the second quarter, giving him a half-sack lead on Julius Peppers for the team lead at 10.5. Peppers retook the lead with his 11th sack late in the third quarter.
▪ A 70-yard catch-and-run by Chris Godwin led to a first down at the Carolina 5, but a sack by Horton and Kawann Short led to a Murray field goal from 41 yards for a 6-6 tie.
▪ Byrd injured his left knee on the kickoff to open the second half and left the field on a cart.
▪ The offsetting penalties that helped keep a Tampa Bay drive alive in the fourth quarter included holding in the end zone that would have been a safety and unnecessary roughness on Lotulelei.
▪ Peppers had two fumble recoveries and a sack.
They said it
“Saved us.” – Rivera, on the contribution of his special teams on Sunday.
“I’m proud of this team’s resilience.” – Newton.
“The best part is it didn’t ruin my Christmas, which I appreciate.” – Rivera.