These men were the primary newsmakers in Carolina’s sloppy but exciting 22-19 victory over Tampa Bay Sunday, which clinched the Panthers’ fourth playoff berth in the past five years:
Damiere Byrd: Byrd’s 103-yard kickoff return – the first kickoff return for a touchdown for the Panthers in six years – was a dazzling play. On some kickoff TD returns, the player is never touched. On this one, Byrd broke at least two attempted tackles. But Byrd then hurt his knee on the opening kickoff of the third quarter and did not return, taking a big-play threat off the field for a team that could sorely use one.
Brenton Bersin: Pressed into lots of action by the injury-related absences of Russell Shepard and then Byrd in the third quarter, the wide receiver the Panthers have fired five separate times made a great sliding catch on one play – but then dropped another strike that ultimately got intercepted. Later, he had a 23-yard catch on Carolina’s final touchdown drive.
Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay’s quarterback mostly outplayed Cam Newton, throwing for 367 yards without an interception and hitting one monstrous play after another. But Winston also lost three fumbles, including one on Tampa Bay’s last-gasp drive, and then made matters worse by getting a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Julius Peppers: The Panthers’ ageless defensive end had a sack and two fumble recoveries for Carolina. The sack assured him of another $250,000 bonus for reaching 11 on the season.
Star Lotulelei: The Panthers defensive tackle picked up one of the worst penalties of his NFL career in the fourth quarter. With Tampa Bay called for holding on another Peppers rush in the end zone, the Panthers – down 19-15 at the time – would have had a safety. Instead Lotulelei gave up the two points well after the play had ended with a frustrated shove of a Tampa Bay lineman, and Winston then converted a third-and-12 on the next play.
It was the sort of play that can lose you a game; Lotulelei was fortunate it did not. In the locker room, Lotulelei said his frustration had boiled over but that he had made a “stupid decision” that “cost my team points.”
Cam Newton: He threw for only 160 yards and had all sorts of trouble getting the Panthers into the end zone Sunday. He also took a sack on a third-and-3 at Tampa’s 31 to waste what should have been another field-goal opportunity. But Newton still was clutch, leading the Panthers (11-4) on the game-winning, 59-yard touchdown drive. Improbably, he dribbled the shotgun snap onto the ground on his touchdown run, then picked the ball up and scored from two yards out with 35 seconds to go -- as Newton later pointed out, the two-yard TD run came on his son Chosen’s second birthday.
The chain gang: I thought the Panthers were going to be short on fourth-and-1 from the 3 on the play right at the end – or that an index card was about to come out. Instead, Carolina made it by about an inch.
Daryl Worley: The Bucs obviously put a target on No. 26 and threw at him time and again. Among other plays, Worley gave up an 18-yard touchdown pass. Counterpart James Bradberry wasn’t much better, however, and picked up two pass-interference penalties on one drive.
Jerry Richardson: The beleaguered Panthers owner showed up and sat in his normal spot in his end-zone suite, just like the majority of Carolina fans expected him to in my recent Twitter poll. It’s conceivable that will be the last home game Richardson ever attends as the Panthers’ owner. The team plays on the road next week and will likely be on the road during the playoffs as well, and Richardson likely will have the team sold before the 2018 season.
Mike Evans: The Panthers had all sorts of trouble covering Tampa Bay’s best receiver, who ended up with 107 yards receiving and drew several key pass-interference penalties (along with committing one of his own).
Chris Godwin: Tampa Bay’s mostly unknown receiver – playing a lot because of an injury to DeSean Jackson – had the longest play from scrimmage on the day when he took a Winston pass 70 yards in the second quarter after shedding a couple of tackles.
Patrick Murray: The Tampa Bay placekicker made his first four field-goal attempts, then missed a fifth try with three minutes to go from 51 yards out that gave Carolina good field position on its final drive and allowed Carolina to win the game with Newton’s TD rather than simply tie it.
Greg Olsen: Tampa Bay, cognizant of the fact that Olsen had averaged 98 yards against the Bucs in their past four trips to Charlotte, often bracketed him with double coverage and mostly took him out of the game.