Carolina Panthers

Panthers top Bucs 38-10, wrap up 15-1 finish and NFC’s playoff top seed

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates with Jerricho Cotchery (82) after they connected on a touchdown pass in the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. The Panthers won 38-10
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates with Jerricho Cotchery (82) after they connected on a touchdown pass in the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. The Panthers won 38-10 dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Top seed in the NFC for the first time in franchise history? Check.

League-best and franchise-record 15 wins? Check.

Quarterback Cam Newton locking up NFL MVP award? Check.

The Carolina Panthers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-10 on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, completing the best regular season in franchise history.

Did Panthers coach Ron Rivera expect all this going in?

“15-1?” he asked. “Hey, I’m an optimist, but 15-1 is a lot.”

The victory gives Carolina the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and home-field advantage throughout. The Panthers will play the lowest remaining seed after next weekend’s wild-card games in a sold-out divisional round game on Jan. 17 at 1:05 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium.

“This is very satisfying,” Rivera said. “But we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

Newton echoed that later.

“It’s irrelevant about our record now,” Newton said. “With the playoffs, we’ve got to be focused and honed in and fast starters.”

The victory, Carolina’s league-best 11th home win in a row, was decided early in the second half, although Newton and most of the other starters played into the fourth quarter.

The Panthers needed a victory over the Bucs or an Arizona loss to Seattle to sew up the top seed. The Seahawks routed the Cardinals 36-6, but that score was never shown at Bank of America Stadium.

“We didn’t know what was going on other than our game,” Rivera said. “We’re going to focus in on us. I still don’t know what happened, and that’s fine with me. I wanted to make sure we were focusing on what we needed to do.”

Newton finished 21-of-26 for 293 yards and two touchdowns and ran six times for 10 yards and two more scores, solidifying his grip on the NFL’s MVP award. His passer rating was 139.3.

Has he left any doubt he deserves the NFL’s MVP award?

“Not for me,” Rivera said. “And I’m modest.”

Three who mattered

Cam Newton: In an Observer survey conducted this week, 25 of the 50 Associated Press MVP voters were reached, and 19 said they were voting for or leaning toward Newton. Sunday did nothing to hurt that.

Devin Funchess: It was unfair to expect the rookie immediately step in for Kelvin Benjamin, who tore his ACL in training camp, but Sunday’s seven catches and 120 receiving yards were both career highs. He also scored a touchdown.

Cameron Artis-Payne: Filling in for Carolina’s injury-riddled running backs corps, Artis-Payne got his first career touchdown on an 11-yard run and finished with 10 carries for 42 yards and two catches for 17 more. The Panthers ran for at least 100 yards for an NFL-best 27 consecutive games.

Observations

▪  Artis-Payne got to keep the football from his first NFL touchdown, rather than have it fall victim to Newton’s Sunday giveaway.

▪ Newton tied Steve Young’s NFL record for most career TDs rushing by a quarterback with 43. Young took 15 seasons to reach that plateau; Newton did it in five.

▪  Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans was ejected with 1:55 to play for disrespecting an official – twice. Get your money’s worth, big fella.

▪  The stadium PA played the Star Wars theme after a tackle by Luke Kuechly. Does that movie have to be everywhere?

Worth mentioning

▪  Tampa Bay fullback Jorvorskie Lane was injured on the Bucs’ first offensive snap, and carted off with a serious lower leg injury. Numerous players from both teams came over to wish him well.

▪  For the second consecutive game post-Odell Beckham intimidation incident, officials lined up across the 50-yard line as the Panthers warmed up.

▪  Sunday marked the eighth time this season the Panthers scored at least 30 points, tying the 1999 team led by Steve Beuerlein, Patrick Jeffers and Muhsin Muhammad for the most in franchise history.

They said it

“This is what the organization stands for, and it starts at the top with Mr. (Jerry) Richardson.” – Rivera.

“We’ve pretty much checked off every box for the team goals that we’ve set out for this year and we’re two wins away from the Super Bowl. It’s a pretty special season so far.” – Panthers tight end Greg Olsen.

“16 would be better.” – Newton, on going 15-1.

P@nthers

Michael Persinger: 704-358-5132, @mikepersinger

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