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Panthers outlast Bucs, 19-17, keep playoff hopes alive

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson beat Tampa Bay for the second time this season, and kept the Carolina Panthers’ playoff hopes alive for another week.

Subbing for an injured Cam Newton, an efficient Anderson passed for 277 yards and a touchdown, leading the Panthers to a 19-17 win Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Panthers coach Ron Rivera, particularly in the red zone.

“I wanted more from Derek,” Rivera said. “He knows he could have put some more points on the board.

“He made some good decisions. The unfortunate part is we got down in the red zone and we didn’t put it in. You’ve got to punch it in when you get the opportunity, and not settle for field goals.”

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly sealed the win with his interception of Bucs quarterback Josh McCown with six seconds left.

The Panthers (5-8-1) won for the second week in a row to stay alive in the NFC South race. Carolina moved ahead of Atlanta (5-9), which lost to Pittsburgh on Sunday. New Orleans (5-8) plays at Chicago on Monday night. Tampa Bay fell to 2-12.

“It’s a race, but we play Cleveland next, and that’s the focus,” Rivera said. “We can’t put ourselves behind the eight ball when we get in the red zone. You can’t kick field goals and expect to win consistently.”

Anderson agreed with Rivera’s assessment.

“Everything was not as clean as we would have liked it,” Anderson said. “We just kind of kept fighting and making plays when they gave them to us. I know I missed some things, but overall I’m happy with the win.”

Anderson’s start came five days after Newton sustained two fractures in his lower back during a two-car accident in uptown Charlotte. Newton stood on the sideline wearing sweats, cheering on his team.

Anderson also filled in during a Week 1 win at Tampa Bay when Newton was out with cracked ribs. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown – a 2-yarder to wideout Jerricho Cotchery in the third quarter.

“My thing going into the game was to get 25 completions, make them tackle guys out in space,” Anderson said. “And somehow it happened.”

His 40 attempts tied Newton for the most in a regulation game this season. Newton threw 46 times in the tie at Cincinnati. The Panthers rushed 32 times.

“We had to (throw the ball), they were packing it in there, putting eight or nine in the box,” Rivera said. “Where we were, we felt real positive about it.”

Tight end Greg Olsen was Anderson’s favorite target, catching 10 passes to match the career high he set last week at New Orleans. That, Rivera said, was partially about Anderson.

“A guy like D.A. is going to lean a lot more on his tight end, rather than his legs,” Rivera said. “Cam is going to pull it down and run it when he gets in trouble.”

Olsen (110 yards) and Kelvin Benjamin (eight catches for 104 yards) became the first two Panthers to go over 100 yards receiving in the same game since Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart in a loss to Green Bay in 2011.

Anderson was sacked three times and was not intercepted, although he had a couple of near-picks on the Panthers’ first drive of the fourth quarter.

Linebacker Orie Lemon had a would-be interception nullified by a roughing the passer penalty against defensive end Larry English, who hit Anderson’s helmet after trying to knock down his pass.

On third-and-7 from the Panthers’ 27 later in the drive, cornerback Alterraun Verner stepped in front of an Anderson pass attempted for Philly Brown but couldn’t hang on.

The Panthers settled for a 45-yard from Graham Gano to go up 19-10 with 8:31remaining.

But the Bucs answered on the ensuing drive, with McCown scrambling for a 12-yard touchdown run that cut the Carolina lead to 19-17 with 3:11 left.

The Panthers turned up the pressure on McCown early in the second half.

On the Bucs’ third snap of the second half, ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison combined on a sack, with Addison stripping McCown of the ball. Defensive tackle Kawann Short recovered at the Tampa Bay 4.

Two plays later, Anderson fired a dart to Jerricho Cotchery, whose 2-yard touchdown was his first as a Panther and gave Carolina a 16-10 lead. Cotchery, a former N.C. State standout, had a career-high 10 catches last year for Pittsburgh.

The Panthers had a chance to pad the lead after forcing the Bucs to go three-and-out on their next possession. But after driving inside the Bucs’ 5, Jonathan Stewart fumbled on a play when he didn’t go down on initial contact and defensive tackle Akeem Spence recovered for Tampa Bay.

The Panthers entered the game ranked 27th with a red-zone touchdown percentage of 45.9, and were 0-for-3 against the Bucs – with two field goals and the Stewart fumble.

The Panthers trailed 10-9 at halftime after Bucs kickers Patrick Murray made a 48-yard field goal with two seconds left in the first half.

The Panthers’ four first-half drives each ended with Gano field goal tries. Gano made kicks of 29, 49 and 38 yards, but pulled a 50-yarder wide left.

Anderson was 14-of-24 passing for 154 yards in the first half, but twice the Panthers settled for field goals in the red zone.

As he did during the first game at Tampa Bay, Anderson threw a lot of short and intermediate-length passes, many to Olsen. Olsen’s seven first-half catches were one shy of Muhsin Muhammad’s team record, which he accomplished twice.

Next up will be Cleveland, which was routed Sunday by Pittsburgh, back at Bank of America Stadium

Newton’s status for the game won’t be decided until later this week.

“I’m making no decisions until I see him on the football field,” Rivera said.

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